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For the Birds

by Julia Sneden

Back when I was a teenager, I had an elderly neighbor who was an avid bird watcher. I remember being amused by her vivid descriptions of the avian personalities that visited her many feeders. She even gave the birds names, and made up little back-stories to explain their behavior. With the pseudo-sophistication typical of an adolescent, I giggled at her anthropomorphism. I had always loved to watch birds, but endowing them with separate personalities seemed to me to be both silly and sentimental.

Early-on, I learned the generic names and habits of many of the native birds from my mother, who was an endless source of information about the plants and wildlife in our area. The birds that visited our home and garden were of interest to me because of their variety, from the hawks that soared effortlessly overhead as they rode the thermals, to the energetic hummingbirds which visited our hollyhocks, hanging in place with wildly beating wings. I loved the exultant song of the meadowlarks that perched on the telephone wires, and I snarled when I was wakened by the rat-a-tat of red-shafted flickers sharpening their beaks on the gutters of our house. There was a small sparrow that nested in the black acacia outside my window, its song three notes descending on a minor scale. That plaintive cry has haunted me for almost 40 years, although I have not heard it since I left California.

There were sea birds, of course: gulls, pelicans, curlews and sandpipers along the coast, and kingfishers, herons, egrets and grebes in the marshes of San Francisco Bay.

My brother kept a flock of homing pigeons for a couple of years. Several times a day they would fly up from their large pen, wheel out over the canyon below our house in a great circle, and return to roost noisily, looking distinctly self-satisfied.

When I moved East, I found that I could no longer identify every bird I saw. Cardinal, tufted titmouse, nuthatch, waxwing, all were new to me. I didn't set up a feeder for many years, being absorbed with feeding my own young and starting a new career. But eventually my job as a teacher brought me into contact with many nature-loving people, and my interest in birds rekindled.

Now that I am an old lady, I find that I have almost become my childhood neighbor. I, too, see distinct personalities among the birds that come to the three feeders on our deck. I'm not quite into their individual personalities, but I fancy that I can see specific characteristics of the different families.

The blue jay, for instance, is a handsome cad. Like many of the matinee idols of silent films, his voice doesn't fit his gorgeous body: it's exceedingly harsh and unpleasant. Unfortunately, it fits his personality, because he's intentionally mean, a true bully. My big feeder has a balanced perch that causes a door to shut over the feed if a squirrel or large bird lands on it. The jay manages to fly in and hover over it, but the door always snaps shut when his feet touch down. He then sits on a nearby branch to sulk, and chases away any and all comers — except the woodpecker and nuthatch, and, for some unknown reason, the little chickadee. I can understand his respect for the woodpecker and nuthatch because they have bills like sabers, but the chickadee?

I will have to give the jays this: the female is just as handsomely clad as the male, and they are definitely equal-opportunity when it comes to being raucous and aggressive.

Our deck projects at second-story level out over a steep gully behind our house. The area is heavily wooded. The arboreal canopy consists of towering, ancient oaks, hickories, and tulip poplars. Beneath them grow maples, sassafras, mulberry and dogwood trees. Dense brush and vines cover the ground below.

A neighbor who recently built nearby asked me how we manage to lure so many cardinals to our feeders, and I had to struggle to find a polite way to tell him that when he "cleaned up" under the trees and put in lawn near his house, he destroyed their habitat. Our lot may be shaggy and unkempt, but cardinals nest in low brush, and we have plenty of both brush and birds.

Cardinals are stunning: the female is a soft, golden brown and the male a blazing red. Both have bright orange beaks and black face masks. They also have a crest which usually stands up in a handsome point. In early summer, however, they molt, and where there used to be a stiff red crest there is now a bare, black head. The orange beak and black skin make them look like some sort of small vulture, and I find myself wondering if they feel embarrassed, the way we do on a bad hair day.

Cardinals make good parents. When the young fledge, the parents continue to look after them for awhile. Often I see a young bird every bit as big as the parent, standing on the deck railing and squalling to be fed. It's often the male cardinal that takes on the task of grabbing a seed, chewing a bit, and stuffing in into Junior's throat. That alone is enough to make me love cardinals. They can be feisty, but they aren't bullies; they're driven off as often as they drive off other birds. And there's no finer sight than a four or five male cardinals on a snowy day, lined up and waiting for their turns to eat.

The goldfinches are positively social, sort of the fraternity boys of the avian world. The small feeder that hangs out over the abyss behind our deck is often host to four or five at a time, all sharing happily. Olive drab all winter, in spring the males suddenly turn a brilliant yellow with handsome black markings. The female remains olive drab. They come to the feeder in pairs, and the male will often stand guard on a nearby railing while his mate eats. They are persnickety eaters, too: if the seed has gotten wet and soggy or is more than a few days old, they stay away in droves. But put out some fresh seed, and they're back en masse, with their cheery, multi-syllabic song.

We have only one kind of hummingbird on the east coast, the ruby-throat. Like most birds, it's the male that is colorful. He is so small and swift that it would be hard to tell he's a he except that when he sips the sugar water I put out, he throws back his head and there is an incandescent flash of vibrant red. Hummers seem to know no fear. Other birds fly away as soon as I open the back door, but the hummers don't even look up. I suppose that if I were as quick as they, I wouldn't be afraid of a lumbering, earth bound human, either.

One of their most endearing qualities is the small sound they make while they drink. I had set up my camera on a tripod one day, and stood quite near the feeder, hoping to take a portrait of the male. Sure enough, he showed up at the usual time, and dipped his beak into the nectar. There was a soft "nurk-nurk-nurk" as he gulped his fill. Sounded just like a three-year-old chugging a glass of milk.

Hummers are of the If-You-Can-Fly-You're-On-Your-Own school of parenting. When the young are fledged, the parents become very territorial, and chase them away from the feeder, sort of: "I brought you up. Now go and find your own flower."

The tufted titmouse is another interesting little fellow. He's a quiet gray, with a bit of yellow on the side, and a handsome crest. He seems to be the most persistent of the birds, and doesn't allow the bigger birds to keep him away for very long. Neither does the purple finch, which is really roseate, not purple. Like their cousins, the goldfinches, purple finches come in bunches. I've never seen just one at a time.

The nuthatch is a hustler. He runs straight up or down (headfirst!) the trunks of the huge trees, and is quick to seize the best perch as he waits — or doesn't wait, and dive-bombs his way to the seed. Everyone else scatters. He's a quick eater, in and out and off on his businesslike way.

One of my favorite denizens of the bird feeder isn't a bird at all, although he can "fly" rather well. When we sit on the deck in the evening, as soon as darkness falls the flying squirrels come out. Tiny, with huge eyes and drooping tails, they sit in the nearest tree and wait their turns quietly. They, too, aren't afraid of humans. After all, would you be scared if you could jump away and soar a good 20 feet to the nearest tree? They go quietly about their feeding despite our conversation and frequent laughter. When startled, they stretch out their legs and the patagium, a flap of skin connected between each front back leg, functions like a glider's wing as they float down off the deck, banking neatly to catch onto a nearby tree trunk.

We spend a fair amount of money each month for Niger thistle and black oil sunflower seeds. The hummer's feeder is high-maintenance: the 4:1 water:sugar syrup we put into it must be cleaned out and refilled every other day, or it gets moldy in the humidity and heat of the South. But any expense or effort we put forth seems small compared to the pleasure it gives us to live in harmony with the avian world. Now if I can just figure out what to do about the raccoons that keep helping themselves from the feeder.


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