World Enough and Time: Consider the birds

Bill Hagen
Contributing writer
Sharing the feeder

I never thought much about birds, until I installed two feeders and a bird bath in the backyard.

My mother really enjoyed sitting at the kitchen table and looking at the feeder, when she lived with my brother in Northern Virginia. Birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and, occasionally, deer would cluster. Since the house was on a flight path to Dulles Airport, a low flying jet would startle them away and then they would slowly return until the next jet arrived. Watching them leave and come back was half the fun.

I had to experiment before I found the right combination of feeders and bird bath. My first feeders, ordinary plastic tubes, were thoroughly trashed by the squirrels. A morning-filled feeder would be empty by afternoon. I was spending more on sun flower seeds and the smaller mix than on cat food. I purchased more expensive squirrel-proof feeders: one with a cage around the feeder for the small birds and another that moves down to block the openings when something with weight gets on it. Very much worth the investment; it was fun watching the squirrels learn what they could not do.

The bird bath required some adjustment as well. I started with a nice ceramic bird bath, but the varying temperatures created a big crack. The solution was a small rubber stock feeder. It doesn’t crack and if we have a hard freeze, I can simply turn it over and stomp on the bottom to get the ice out. At one point, I bought a floating heater, but haven’t used it recently because our winters are warmer. Just need to break up the top sheet of ice in the morning.

Cat yearns for company

So now I can linger at the kitchen table, typing random thoughts and emails on my iPad and gaze at God’s critters. I have a camera with a zoom lens if a scene develops. The other day, I spotted our local white cat crouched below the bird bath (from which she drinks) looking up and meowing at two cardinals, as they looked down at her. Good picture, except the day was grey, the lawn was brown, so the colors didn’t show up.

I can’t say I have become educated enough to qualify as a bird spotter. The Audubon Society Field Guide is authoritative, but way too detailed for my limited memory. Way too many birds for a backyard gazer. I much prefer George M. Sutton’s Fifty Common Birds of Oklahoma and the Southern Great Plains (1981, OU Press). Fewer birds. And Dr. Sutton provides very readable essays on each with his own paintings as illustrations. Worth reading and, in my case, rereading.

Apart from book learnin’, just watching the birds has taught me a thing or ten.

Birds of a feather really do flock together, especially the smallest and the largest. Of course, when the grackles arrive, everyone clears out. Doves and cardinals, on the other hand, mix well with smaller birds and squirrels.

“Flighty” pretty well describes bird behavior. They gather on the feeders and the ground below; suddenly all fly to the bushes and trees for no apparent reason. Then they gather again. When the cardinals show up as a group, I notice one always perches in a high place, as a sort of sentinel.

This robin ain’t bobbin’!

Songs and poems can present a false picture of bird behavior. Take the song about the red, red robin that comes bob, bob, bobbin’ along. If “bobbin’” refers to what you do with your head, it describes doves, not robins. Like most birds, the robin hops or walks when it forages; the dove bobs his head when he walks, much as we might pump our arms during a jog. I’ve never figured out whether the dove’s head-bob shimmies down to get his feet moving, or vice verse. A chicken-egg problem. I guess “when the grey, grey dove comes bob, bob, bobbin’” doesn’t sing as well. Besides, the fact that “dove” rimes with “love” has created a separate reputation for that bird.

Weight-control: Doves tend to put on weight, so it’s good that they are too big to perch on the feeders and must content themselves with what other birds drop to the ground.

Providing water, summer and winter, may be as important as the seed in attracting birds. During humid days, I give the birds a special treat of water from the dehumidifier—no harmful additives. (I change water about every four days.)

I have an excuse for not cutting down the bushes along the fence: they are a Bird Refuge. Where they fly when they are “flighty.”

On the other hand, the birds, especially the robins, want me to mow the lawn regularly, so they can spot incoming cats and peck for any insects and worms I may have stirred up.

Predators are respected, but not necessarily feared. A Cooper’s Hawk came to take a bath about once a week this past summer. While the yard was mostly empty, some birds continued eating on the ground no more than 15 feet away. In the time it might take to unfurl his wings and shake the water off, they would be well away. At one point, he overstayed his time in the bird bath and two jays took turns diving on him.

The hawk also reminds me: place your feeders and bath under overhanging branches if possible. Hawks and falcons are most deadly when they can tuck in their wings and plummet straight down on their targets. An overhang will force them to brake and level off to get under the branches. Enough time for the smaller birds to leave.

Feeders and birdbath

Birds and squirrels will clean up scraps on the ground—pizza and bread crusts, nuts, even hardened cheese. But you have to be careful. Once I threw out some very greasy fries; the only customers were a family of skunks. Hardened crusts can be a problem. A friend gave me some old freezer bread that required tools to break apart. It remained uneaten until rain softened it up.

We’re all staying home more these days. So why not put out a bath and feeder or two and enjoy the activity?

After a time, you’ll notice you have regular customers. Maybe some of them will be so bold as to alert you that a feeder needs replenishing by appearing at your window.

Bill Hagen is a retired OBU professor. He lives in Shawnee with his cat. Contact him at billha47@hotmail.com.