Archive for Thursday, February 11, 2010

Watching, feeding birds preferred to shoveling the driveway

February 11, 2010

I like to stand at the window and watch the birds as they cluster at the feeders in our backyard.

As pastimes go, this is not a very exciting one, I know, but what can one do when cruel winter seems to have us locked in such a steadfast grip? Go back to work? Shovel the driveway? I don’t think so. No, I have been quite happy to turn my back on the workaday world, and I’ve read too many reports over the years of old men who shuffled off this mortal coil in the act of clearing their driveways, so I’ll take up my position at the kitchen window and watch the birds in peace and tranquility and relative safety and comfort, thank you. I’m happy to leave it to others to keep the wheels of commerce turning and, as for the driveway, there’s a service that’s supposed to take care of that where we live.

The feeders are pretty active places, especially when the weather is changing for the worse. When the snow starts flying the birds know that is going to restrict their available sources of food, and so they tuck in. (I sometimes wonder if we’re not tilting the ecological balance somewhat by providing artificial sources of food for wild animals like the birds, but we enjoy watching them and so I’ll leave that question for someone else.)

Mostly we get finches of several different varieties. House finches, purple finches, and I think an occasional goldfinch – although I can’t be certain because I think their coloration changes in the winter. Once in a while we’ll see a woodpecker or grackle or some other species, and in the spring and summer we get hummingbirds and orioles from time to time, but mostly this time of year it’s the finches.

If you’ve ever watched them flock to a feeder you’ll know that birds are really not into sharing. People may think of songbirds as gentle, inoffensive creatures, but that is mostly because they are, for the most part, tiny and unable to inflict much harm.

Much harm to creatures as large as ourselves, I might add. To each other, no quarter is asked and none is given. The adjective that comes to mind to describe it is Darwinian.

One might think of the term “pecking order” as a quaint, innocuous description of how rights are apportioned among a group, but I think it probably would not seem so fanciful or harmless if you were the one getting pecked. Suffice it to say that the order is rigidly and mercilessly enforced.

As I watch the scene unfold out our back windows I cannot help but be reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, “The Birds.” The movie, based on a book of short stories of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, is an apocalyptic story of a northern California coastal village whose denizens are suddenly and viciously beset by a series of unexplained attacks by seagulls and other birds. It was fiction, of course, but it was chilling fiction because it was based on actions that are commonplace. If you’ve ever walked out on a California pier with an open bag of potato chips or popcorn you know what I mean. It was only the extent of the violence that was imaginary.

And so, thinking of warmer climes, I sit and watch the backyard. I will have to replenish the feeders before long. It’s a good thing those birds aren’t any larger.

— John Beal is the retired editor of the Eudora News’ sister publications The Shawnee Dispatch and Bonner Springs Chieftain.

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