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living well with birds by diane e. dees

I live in a rural subdivision that is a designated bird sanctuary. Two dozen species of birds have visited my yard at one time or another, and many have stayed to dine regularly, raise families, and entertain us during the daylight hours. Some are seasonal visitors, and a few have made rare and amazing trips that have lasted a few days, or a few moments.

trio of birds by archibald thorburn
"Trio of Birds"
by Archibald Thorburn

Our house is surrounded by pine trees, with a good number of oaks and other species also offering shelter and food to wildlife. There are numerous shrubs, and there is plenty of wild brush, not to mention a yard filled with fertile, worm-infested garden beds. The acorns, berries, insects and worms provide a tasty buffet for avian diners, and of course, there are the bird feeders.

We have platform feeders, hopper feeders, suet feeders, and finch feeders. Hummingbird feeders, seed bags, fruit spikes, peanut feeders. There are birdbaths, birdhouses, and bird roosting jars.

And there are food fights.

The squirrels, of course, make it their business to get to the food before the birds do. There is no such thing as a squirrel-proof feeder, but every once in a while, we go through the motions of putting up a feeder that forces the squirrels to actually work to get to the food. When I sit in my home office, I see one who hangs upside down and sways wildly on the peanut feeder like a circus aerial performer. When I stand in the kitchen, I watch the squirrels jump from the roof ledge and land on the baffle of a circular feeder. It takes them only moments to turn upside down and stick their heads into the feed tray.

The squirrels aren't the only ones after the bird food. For a long time, a rabbit lived in our yard and ate nuts and seeds out of a ground feeder. The feeder was formed by two cherubs with spread wings, and it was the only one good enough for the rabbit. When the birds and squirrels would come around to eat their share, he would pound his big back feet on the ground and swat at them with his front paws. We eventually filled it with carrot slices and gave him ownership.

My bedroom has French doors, and there is a feeder attached to the glass. Almost every morning, I am witness to the noisy marital conflict of our backyard cardinal couple. They fly to the feeder together, she eats a few seeds, and he becomes upset. There is plenty of room in the feeder for both of them, but he insists that she leave so that he can climb in and eat. He shrieks and flaps until she flies to a nearby branch and waits for him to have his breakfast. They do this week after week.

Bird parents feed their babies in the nest, but then the young birds have to learn how to get their own food. I once watched a male cardinal patiently teach his offspring how to eat out of a porch feeder. And a red-bellied woodpecker father recently flew from a tree to a feeder, stuffing his mouth with seed, and then flew back to the tree to feed his child. He did this repeatedly until, I presume, the small woodpecker caught on.

Red-bellied and redheaded woodpeckers are frequent visitors to our yard, and lately, the little downy woodpeckers have joined them. Once, several years ago, I was standing in the front wooded area of our property, and I heard a powerful screeching and carrying on. I walked in the direction of the noise, and there, just a few feet above me in an oak tree, was a pileated woodpecker, a giant among yard birds. A week or so later, I saw it in a tree in my side yard, but I have never seen it since.

Once, I saw very young orchard thrushes near one of my garden beds. I was concerned that they were walking around by themselves, though I suspected their mother and father were a few feet up in the tree, watching me. A few moments later, I saw the mother thrush, flying down from the branch, and I made a quick getaway. I never saw thrushes in my yard again, either. There is also the dark-eyed junco that occasionally lives in the mayhaw tree at the edge of my yard, right next to the mailbox. He comes for the rich fruit, and then is gone.

On any given day, cardinals, nuthatches, tufted titmice, and Carolina chickadees scramble around the yard, flying back and forth from trees to feeders in what resembles lunch hour at a very busy café. Sometimes the robins march around, turning up worms, and the orioles walk slowly, searching for ground food. Lately, the goldfinches have been here in droves, their feathers already a bright yellow. The brown thrashers and wrens thrash the mulch with frenetic energy, while the crows gather in small gangs, then make a run on the other birds, scattering them in uneven patterns across the sky.

Every year, in late March, we put out food with the hope that the beautiful, inky, indigo buntings will come, but they never do. However, one memorable time, we did have a brief, sad visit from their exotic, multi-colored cousin, the painted bunting. I had just returned from viewing a Haitian art exhibit, and with the reds, yellows, blues and greens of the Haitian flags still in my head, I stepped onto my front porch to find a painted bunting, lying still on the concrete. He had tried to fly into my office and had died on impact with the window glass.

Bluebirds live in the bluebird house on the corner of our property, but they rarely come close to the house, no matter how many tempting mealy worms we put out for them. And egrets sometimes leave the river and wander around our neighborhood, in search of ponds and wading pools. We don't have enough water to attract them, just as we don't have enough flowers to draw the non-regional hummingbirds that pass through the area on their way to other places. But we get plenty of ruby-throated hummers, and in the late spring and summer, when the evenings are long, they will sometimes outlast even the cardinals in their pursuit of dinner. The tiny diners swarm our antique cannas, as well as the hummingbird feeders on our porch and deck.

I am always stunned when I meet people who have no idea what birds are in their yard, or who have never provided meals and housing for those birds. A crucial factor in garden pest control, birds provide free music all hours of the day, and they are an unending source of entertainment and natural beauty. I can tell roughly what time of day it is by observing which birds are doing what, and the various avian arrivals let me know a lot about seasonal changes. Birds have been around for a very long time, and they understand aviation in a way that we never will. They also understand how to make the family unit work for the good of all members, something we also have trouble grasping.

I would be content if I never saw my human neighbors, but I don't think I could bear it if I didn't share my property with my noisy, hungry, resourceful and beautiful bird friends.



© 2003, All Rights Reserved

Bio:
Diane E. Dees is a regular contributor to Moondance Columns. She is a psychotherapist and writer in south Louisiana. Her essays and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in several publications, including: The Raven Chronicles, Thema, Southern Ocean Review, The Melic Review, The Dead Mule and The Louisiana Review. Diane and her husband are the webmasters of www.princesscafe.com, a virtual rock and roll restaurant.

Diane can be reached at: dianedees@charter.net


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