Backyard Beauties and Beasts


Bill Tune

When we moved in June of 2010, it took a while to acquire the proper furniture for our breakfast nook. We were eventually able to create a very comfortable place to eat breakfast, read the paper, and drink our morning coffee.  Unfortunately, the view through the double windows into the back yard was sorely lacking in aesthetic appeal.

I have already written about the neglected yard I inherited and my efforts to reclaim it.  The L-shaped, brick-lined flowerbed in our back yard was so over-grown with grass, weeds (including poison ivy!), and some rugged lantana that the bricks were barely visible.  Now that we had a pleasant place to spend our mornings, I felt a strong need to enhance the view.

My work in the yard greatly improved the view with trimmed grass, weeded flowerbeds and a few well-placed flowers.  Now I was ready for the birds.

I’ve always been fascinated by birds, the beauty, the grace, the freedom of flight.  Having already seen several birds visit the backyard with no encouragement from me, I knew the addition of bird feeders would increase their numbers.  I carefully selected my first bird feeder on line, not realizing that it was designed for small birds only.  I ran to a local store and got another, better suited for larger birds.  I also bought an inexpensive birdbath, and by adding a hummingbird feeder, I was ready for some serious bird watching.

I use two kinds of birdseed: small seeds for the small birds and larger seeds, mainly sunflower, for the bigger birds.  When I predicted that the number of birds would increase, I was not wrong.  The thing I did not anticipate, however, was how quickly the birds could go through 8 pounds of birdseed!  (My feeders hold 3 and 5 pounds of feed, respectively.)  Sometimes I’m looking at empty feeders in half a day.   That doesn’t mean they completely stop coming by.  I still have groups of visitors scavenging the ground under the feeders looking for spilled seeds.  Birds are very messy eaters, so there is a lot of spillage.

I’m no expert on identifying birds, but with the Audubon bird app on my iPhone, I’ve been able to learn some things.  I regularly see a few blue jays, a pair of cardinals, some sparrows, a couple of house finches, several grackles, and lots and lots of white-winged doves.  I’ve counted 10 pairs of doves at a time.  They pretty much dominate the whole bird scene in my backyard.  I’ve got nothing against the doves.  They’re pretty enough, I guess, but I must confess a prejudice towards the more colorful visitors.  The blue jays and cardinals are always worth a second look when spotted.  I’ve also got a couple of hummingbirds now, but more about that later.

Anyone who’s ever provided seed for our fine-feathered friends knows that bird feeders attract more than just birds.  Easily #2 on the most-likely-to-appear-at-a-bird-feeder list is, of course, our furry-tailed friend, the squirrel.  There is a large tree not far from my feeders, and it houses a family of three squirrels.  I am aware of squirrel-proof bird feeders, but I have not chosen to make that investment just yet.  My feeders hang from decorative shepherd’s crooks, often used for hanging baskets.  They are far enough away from the tree to deny squirrels access from above.  When I first set out the feeders, I naively hoped that the squirrels would not be able to climb the round slick metal pole as easily as a tree trunk.  Think again.  Squirrels are amazing gymnasts.  I once watched one dangle from his back feet from a feeder, obviously showing off.  They haven’t really been as big a problem as I expected, but I have tried to discourage the squirrel-up-the-pole thing.  I have rapped on the window.  That worked once.  I’ve left my comfy chair to chase them out of the yard. (Way too much trouble.) I’ve even tried greasing the pole with Pam cooking spray.  That helps, but not for long.  One squirrel in particular has developed quite an attitude.  One of my scare tactics was to suddenly open the breakfast nook window.  The unexpected noise would instantly wreak havoc among all visitors.  Then I tried it a second time, and everyone scattered - except the squirrel on the feeder who looked at me and said (with his eyes), “You’re too lazy to actually come out here, old man, so what’s the point of leaving?”  Well, I’m a retired teacher, and no furry-tailed four-footed freak is going to talk to me that way, so I proceeded to the back door, opened it, and boldly entered the back yard, still several feet from the feeder.  The encroacher continued to eye me carefully, but stood his ground, adding, “If that’s all you got, I think I’ll stay.” So I ran at the feeder and, like the true coward I knew he was, he ran for the tree at break-neck speed.  I had proved my point.  No pea-brained critter was going to control ME!

My backyard visitors also include two neighborhood cats, one black, and the other one white.  They are very interested in the activity around my bird feeders, even though it gets very quiet when they show up.  I’ve seen them stalk, I’ve seen them hide in the brush, but I’ve never seen them get close to a bird.  However, they may be working in cahoots with the grackles. [Parental warning: if kids are in the room don’t let them read the rest of this paragraph.]  I once found a headless, dead (duh!) sparrow in the birdbath.  This was a complete mystery to me, but I disposed of the carcass and went about my business.  A couple of days later, I think it was a Sunday afternoon, I was gazing out the back window when I noticed a grackle chasing a sparrow.  He caught it in the middle of the yard, and while holding it down with his feet, he pecked at the neck until it was dead.  I was so stunned to witness such an event I was slow to react.  I ran out into the yard to scare away the murderer, but it was too late.  I tossed the victim in the bushes and tried to erase the image from my mind.  However, a few hours later, I noticed the white cat chowing down on the remains.  So maybe they have some sort of deal.  I don’t know.  I don’t understand people, much less animals.

The hummingbird is easily the most fascinating of all the birds I see.  I used to think they were in constant motion, largely because the only hummingbird feeders I had ever used had no place for them to roost.  Once, when at a friend’s house, I saw large numbers of hummingbirds, perching as they ate.  I had never seen a still hummingbird before and vowed then that someday hummingbirds would perch and eat in my yard, too. 

I chose my new hummingbird feeder carefully and, after looking up the formula for nectar (4:1 ratio of water to sugar), eagerly set it up in the aforementioned flowerbed.  Weeks went by with no activity.  The doves, blue jays, and cardinals were nice, but I wanted some serious hummingbird action!  In early May I finally saw one, but he soon disappeared.  I moved the feeder closer to my window, because what’s the point of attracting hummingbirds if they’re too far away to observe?  The summer passed with no activity.  I’d leave the nectar out for as long as I thought it might still be good, and then change it out with fresh juice.  Finally, in late August, I had a visitor – and he became a regular!  For the first time, I had to refill the feeder because it was empty. (What joy!)  A couple of weeks later, another showed up, the mate, I think.  And I think I’ve even seen a third, smaller one – the baby?  Hummingbirds are very territorial and do not share well, so they don’t eat at the same time, but I’ve gotten pictures of both of them, and I think they are a pair of broad-tail hummingbirds.  At least, they match the pictures on my iPhone app.  Of course the fact that that species isn’t supposed to exist this far east is of some concern, but maybe that’s their problem, not mine.

Speaking of pictures, shooting my birds has become another hobby of sorts.  I started taking pictures with my iPhone through the breakfast nook window. I even took off the screen and cleaned the inside and outside for a better view.  The iPhone camera is amazing, but it does have one serious limitation.  The resolution suffers greatly any time you zoom in for a closer shot.  My sisters came for a visit in July and one of them has a really, really nice (expensive) camera, and she knows how to use it.  In three days time, she took over 300 pictures.  I love digital photography.  I kept my favorite 200 pics and now have a treasure of memories of my first summer of backyard bird watching.  Her pictures inspired me to get out my digital camera (Sony Cyber-Shot) to get some quality close-ups.  With patience, puzzles, coffee and more patience, I’ve managed to take some pretty neat pictures of my hummingbirds – not the easiest subject to photograph.  In fact, I hate to brag, but it takes more than a ½ ounce brain to outsmart me.  My hummingbird feeder has four feeding stations and is strategically placed just outside my window.  However, from my vantage point I can only see three of the stations easily, the other, of course, being on the opposite side.  When I started looking for photo ops with my long-beaked fast-moving friend you can guess which feeding station became his favorite, yep, the one on the opposite side.  So the next time I filled up the feeder, I used a small piece of plastic to plug the offending feeding station.  I have gotten some excellent photos since then!

I can’t afford to keep my feeders full all the time, but then I wouldn’t want to enable our neighborhood bird obesity problem, either.  Usually, the birds get along pretty well together, in spite of the major exception mentioned earlier.  They don’t even mind eating along side the squirrels, who spend most of their time on the ground working on the spillage from above.  The cats do change the dynamics from time to time, and when I leave the side gate open, we even have a large white dog drop in for a visit.  All in all, my mini bird sanctuary project has been a success, and I look forward to continuing it.  Maybe I’ll invest in one of those squirrel-proof feeders next year.


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