Nature, New England

Of Birds and Birdfeeders

When it came to cooking, my mother, like many others of her generation, relied on first principles.  That meant that the idli-rawa (cream of rice) used for making idlis was made at home.  This involved soaking the rice in water, drying it and then grinding it at home using a stone mill.  The soaked rice was spread out on an old linen towel on the terrace and set to dry.  Birds such as sparrows would find this an enticing treat and I was deputed to chase away any birds that might decide to stop by for a meal.

There were lots of birds around our house when I was growing up.  I’m no birder but I remember birds such as sparrows, crows, mynahs, hoopoes and kites.  Then there were the nocturnal ones like bats and owls. For a period of time in the mid-seventies, a bat had taken residence somewhere in the loft of our house in Kumara Park and we would find it flying out at dusk.  There was no way to prevent this since the older houses had various openings that birds (and in this case, mammals) could conveniently use to enter and exit the house.  I’m not sure if I would be fine with it now but back then, we never thought it unusual to have a bat occupy a recess of our house.  I’m sure there were many other species of birds in my neighborhood.  My knowledge of birds, scant as it was, came from reading Jim Corbett and Ken Anderson.

A pair of blue jays at the feeder

Around 2005, I came across “The Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher” at the local Costco in South Florida.  I picked up a copy and as I read through the book, I figured it would be a good idea to get a bird feeder.  I thought it would be fun to watch birds along with my daughter.  A quick trip to the neighborhood Home Depot and I returned home with a basic plastic bird feeder and some seed.  I hung the bird feeder on the branch of a tree in my backyard and waited expectantly.  A day went by, no birds.  Two days, three days and four.  It was pretty disheartening.  It was probably on the fifth day that I heard a mild commotion in the backyard. Peeping out of the window, I found that a flock of grackles had discovered the bird feeder.  I was elated!

The news of the free buffet soon spread through the avian community and a noisy flock of blue jays were at the bird feeder the next day.  I kept an eye on the bird feeder and refilled it as soon as the supply ran low.  A week went by and I decided that a bird bath was required.  It was duly procured and installed in the backyard. The mourning doves arrived soon after.  They did not eat out of the bird feeder but ate the seed that spilled onto the grass below.  I must admit, it was a pretty idyllic scene.  We had a small lake behind our house and it was soothing to sit in the patio in the evenings and listen to the soft cooing of the doves while a gentle breeze caused slight waves on the lake’s surface.

If I was late to fill the bird feeder, the doves would wait patiently, lined up along the edge of the roof of my neighbor’s house. I was getting hooked.  I checked out books from the local library on backyard landscapes.  There were pictures of classic English gardens with sketches.  I was getting carried away, entertaining visions of a neatly laid out, bird-friendly backyard.  Then the doves struck.  I stepped out one morning to find that the doves, who were no doubt in the import-export business had done their business on my patio.  In a couple of days, the once clean mesh of my screened patio now had bird droppings splattered all over it.  It was not a pretty sight.  Worse, I realized, that it was only a matter of time before the doves decided to spread their goodwill and conduct their business on my neighbors’ patios as well.  I pictured the “Condo Commandos” impatiently knocking on my door. Reluctantly, I removed the bird feeder.  The blue jays and grackles did not seem to care, after checking the tree for a day or two, they stopped visiting.  It took the doves some time.  They would alight on the branches and look around for the bird feeder.  It took them over a week to figure out that the bird feeder was out of business.  I gave away my bird bath to a dear family friend and it now occupies a corner of her garden.

A  house finch and goldfinch

When we moved into our house in New England, I found that the previous owners had left three bird feeders behind.  These were not like the chintzy plastic one that I had bought previously but sturdy, good quality ones.  They were empty when we moved in.  I made a quick trip to the local ACE hardware store and bought a bag of birdseed.  The birds came right away.  Colorful birds, many species that I was not familiar with.  We had a bird feeder suspended outside our living room window.  It comprised of a tubular feeder with a suet cage at the bottom.  The whole thing was enclosed by a squirrel guard.  The feeder was suspended by a rope and could be lowered for refilling.  The feeders in the backyard had baffles to prevent squirrels from getting to the feeders.  There was a bird bath too.  It was a fancy one, it was heated!  The birds had quite an appetite.  Light eaters are said to eat like birds.  Birds do eat very small quantities at a time but they feed frequently through the day.  It was now time to head back to Costco and buy the giant 40 lb bag of bird seed blend.

A party at the feeder – black-capped chickadee, dark-eyed junco and downy woodpecker.
A few months later, I bought an “Audubon field guide to New England” and gradually started identifying the birds.  There were blue jays, of course, grackles and mourning doves that I recognized from my days in South Florida.  But there were also titmice, house finches, goldfinches, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, northern cardinals and dark-eyed juncos.  The woodpeckers were partial to the suet and the ones that commonly showed up were the downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers.  Varieties of sparrows such as tree sparrows and white-throated sparrows are seen more commonly in winter.  On the rare occasion, I have spied a red-winged blackbird.  The female of the species looks completely different from the male and I had assumed that they were different species.  I tried hanging mesh socks filled with thistle seeds to attract finches.  They did not take to them and I eventually got rid of the socks.  Not all birds feed at the feeders though.  I use a blend that includes millet and different varieties of sunflower seeds.  Birds search for the seeds of their choice, nudging the others to the ground below where they are eaten by other birds.
My good side, please! Northern Cardinal at the front window.
Winter is when the bird feeders become crucial.  Birds have a high metabolic rate and their natural sources of food such as insects and berries are not easily available.  I see a lot more birds at the feeders during the winter, feeding throughout the day.  It is especially beautiful to see the Red Cardinals contrasting against the snow.  As ponds and other sources of water freeze over, birds have to melt snow with their bodies or bills to get a few drops of water.  The heated bird bath is a welcome respite and source of water for the birds.
Deer get thirsty too!
As the snow piles on and it gets colder, the deer are drawn to the feeders and bird bath.  On more than one occasion, I’ve seen deer trying to eat seeds from the feeders or drinking from the birdbath.  Refilling the feeders also becomes an expedition.  By the time we get to February, there is usually a couple of feet of snow in the backyard.  I have to don my snow pants, jacket, gloves, snow boots and so on prior to heading out.  I probably look like a seal hunter!  I also have to carry water from inside the house since the pipes along the exterior of the house freeze and it is futile to turn on the taps.  The birds go through the seeds pretty quickly and sometimes I have to refill the feeders on alternate days.
Any form of calories will do in winter
Squirrels and chipmunks while cute can be pests when it comes to bird feeders.  They devour the contents greedily, leaving the birds hungry.  They can’t get to the bird feeders in the backyard since baffles and squirrel guards keep them at bay.  When we first moved in, they could not get to the bird feeder in the front either.  The larger squirrels could clamber up the weeping cherry tree below our window, leap up to the window sill and then jump onto the feeder but they were thwarted by the cage guard.  They would swing back and forth, trying to bite their way through the wire. However, as the cherry tree grew taller, the smaller red squirrels found it easy to access the feeder.  They would sit comfortably ensconced within the feeder devouring the contents while wagging their tail contemptuously at us.  I finally moved the feeder to the backyard and installed a squirrel buster feeder in the front.  This feeder is spring loaded and shuts the feeding ports when a squirrel tries to eat from them.  This has worked so far!  The squirrels do however get to eat the fallen seeds or leftover suet that I leave below the feeders.
The birdseed burglar in action!
As winter turns to spring, birds such as robins can be found rooting for worms in the yard. They don’t frequent the feeders.  As spring turns to summer and the weather warms, the seemingly withered trumpet vine springs luxurious leaves.  The fiery blossoms vary in color from yellow to orange to red.  These are a magnet for honey bees, ants and the ruby-throated hummingbirds.  These tiny birds are a marvel. Their iridescent green feathers are a blur as they beat their wings rapidly and hover seemingly motionless while they feed using their long bills.  These birds have amongst the highest metabolism amongst creatures and they have to feed frequently.  I have not experimented with nectar feeders.  I’m worried that I might goof up with the care and end up creating a toxic brew for these delicate creatures.  As the weather grows cooler and winter approaches, the hummingbirds migrate south to Central America, an incredible journey of over 3000 miles!
A blur of wings as a hummingbird feeds on the nectar of a trumpet flower

Given the laws of nature, the birds who come to feed at the feeders sometimes themselves become feed for other predators.  Our backyard borders woods and we have enough shrubs and trees in our yard to offer cover. However, occasionally, there is a flurry of activity as birds take flight and squirrels scamper away in alarm when a predator is in the vicinity.  My wife once witnessed a hawk swoop down upon a blue jay that was late to heed the warning call and carry it off in its sharp talons to a tree stump at the edge of our yard.  There was a brief struggle as the hawk held the blue jay tight in its vice-like grip.  All I found was a few feathers the next day, the hawk had no doubt carried off its hapless prey elsewhere.

I continue to refill the feeders. It’s been an interesting evolution for me, from chasing birds away from grains as a small boy in Bangalore to now feeding them.  Perhaps, I am driven by a selfish motive. In a world where we increasingly focus on electronic devices for entertainment, it is nice to look outside my window and witness but a small slice of the marvel that nature has to offer.

These damn squirrel guards!  How do I eat?  A mourning dove at the feeder.

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