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Dan Mackie: Getting My Fill at the Backyard Bird Feeder

  • A variety of birds lands on the author's feeder. (Dan Mackie photograph)



For the Valley News
Friday, May 25, 2018

Bird-feeding season is over on our little street in West Lebanon. Our fine-feathered friends, who had been flocking to our feeder like commuters to Grand Central Station, have taken flight to greener pastures, where they binge on bugs and other sustainable fare.

As a recent retiree, I had ample time to gaze out the windows and monitor takeoffs and landings. Winter and early spring are peak season.

“There’s a lot going on out there,” I say to my wife, Dede, on busy mornings.

“What kind of birds today?” she asks.

“Little ones,” I answer.

“Umm, thanks for the information.”

“Who do you think I am? John James Audubon?”

Despite a lack of knowledge (I grew up in pigeon country), I have enjoyed the aerial displays. There was a flutter of finches, a sensation of sparrows, a carnival of chickadees. I spied a downy woodpecker or maybe two — they all look alike to me.

A pair of cardinals were frequent ground feeders; they rarely ate directly from the feeder. We call them Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal, fully aware that makes us seem daft. We also presume they are happily married, although we can only judge by appearances. Who knows what goes on back home at the nest?

A couple of grackles visited the feeder; they were a bad fit, like a tall man on a kid’s bike. The bluejays were similarly ill fitted, but they usually grabbed a seed or two for the road.

On many a bright, cheery morning, a pair of mourning doves paid call and changed the mood; they are something of a wet blanket as they mope about with intimations of mortality.

I used to think that goldfinches were just finches that arrived late to the party, but I’ve read that the males bust out bright yellow feathers in spring to attract, and seduce, impressionable mates. It almost makes one blush to contemplate nature’s obsession with sex.

As for bird behaviors, I’m amused at the way the small ones jostle and bully each other for prime perches. The pipsqueak squabbles seem ludicrous. I suppose from a sufficient distance human aggression seems the same.

The chickadees seem very brave to me. They hold their own against bigger birds, and don’t flee the giant (me) who stuffs the feeder with sunflower seeds. One even took seed from my hand. That’s not to say that I don’t respect robins who keep a distance, and the flyby crows who want nothing to do with me or others of my ilk. I think they have sized up humans correctly.

Bird song, such as it is, can be intense in spring. The sounds range from sweet little melodies to repeated sharp bursts that border on annoying. While I’m up with the birds, Dede sleeps in a bit, so I come to the bedroom door to deliver updates. I tell her, “The birds are making a racket. Who can I complain to?” She ignores me. Before a certain hour, all wisecracks flop.

Birds aren’t the only creatures attracted to handouts. Several squirrels greedily scour the ground for dropped seeds, and do well, since birds are as dainty as entrants in eating contests at county fairs. I’d expect the squirrels to be as tubby as woodchucks, but they keep their squirrelish figures.

A couple of neighborhood cats have also clawed their way up the small amur maple that holds the feeder, to hunker down on a limb. I knock on the window and they slink away. I don’t think they are afraid of me; it looks more like embarrassment, as if the perch is below their feline dignity.

Like many hobbies, bird feeding is big business. I looked online for information about how much Americans splurge on birds. The Maine Cooperative Extension Service puts the national total at $3 billion annually. A 2002 Wall Street Journal article said total spending by Americans was “more than twice as much as they spent on prepared baby food, and two and a half times as much as they spent on food for needy nations.” Hmm.

Different sources have varied opinions about how much feeding benefits birds, if at all. The potential downside comes from concentrating them, potentially spreading disease. The Audubon Society says feeding is a plus, as long as humans clean feeders (with a 10 percent bleach solution) to reduce the risk, and clear detritus on the ground that goes bad.

But feeding isn’t just for the birds. I’m confident it is good for people. Among the reasons it is so pleasurable, I think, is that we are attracted to motion. Babies coo at mobiles from cribs, adults watch automobiles from lawn chairs. Birds take the visuals to another level: a veritable flying circus.

Interacting with birds might even incline us to feel some empathy for other creatures, who may need that in a changing world. I suppose it’s fine if we start with appreciating pretty little things, and work our way up from there.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.