Bill Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 19
May 10-16, 2001
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Birds for All Seasons

These are the days when the birds come back –
A very few – a bird or two –
To take a backward look.

-Emily Dickinson, 1859.

So far it's only one bird that I can attest to, but the old familiar backward look is there. There are probably others who remain secretive in the woods of the steep slope that drops to Stoney Creek up here in North County.

I was becoming edgy. The first sighting was overdue, and this species that sports dark gray feathers is my favorite lawn bird of all. It lacks the color of brilliant finches that feed off the hanging bag of thistle, the shy cardinals who visit for sunflower seeds close to the woods or the noisy and brash bluejays that perch in branches of the catalpa tree awaiting a handout of peanuts.

As winter tarried later than usual, I asked myself: Do birds return on a schedule dictated by weather and temperature or by daylight hours? And why haven't the catbirds returned?

Last year, via my observance, the first arrived April 24; the year before it was April 25. In '01 May Day had arrived and I had neither seen nor heard one. A summer without chatty and brazen catbirds would be worse than a fall without colorful foliage.

Jelly in the Catbird Seat

Maybe I haven't been outside or looked out the window at the right time, I thought. I usually wait for the first sighting of spring; then I daily put a heaping tablespoon of grape jelly in a feeder set aside for them low to the ground and only three feet from the glider where I sit to read the morning paper.

Sometimes, I play games with them. While the sun is still low, I arrive at my usual seat, light my pipe and start reading. Before I have the chance to scan more than the headlines, a catbird or two light on the back of the glider to noisily scold me. "Where's the jelly? Get the jelly! Birds have to eat."

I reach beneath the flowers on a small stool, pull out the loaded tablespoon, and as a bird or two watches, I lump their treat up in a little pile, then tap the spoon hard to rid it of any remnants. By the time I sit down, a bird is on the rim of the feeder to take that backward look Dickinson wrote of, as if to say, "well, it's about time."

Then the bill - or bills - tap into the rich red jelly, a head or two goes tilt toward the sky as if my feathered friends are savoring the flavor - or perhaps aiding its passage toward the stomach. The routine is repeated several times. Then the bills are brushed against the rim of the feeder to wipe the sticky jelly free, and there's a flight to the bird bath for a drink.

It's a daily ritual. When it rains and I'm not there to read, they roost low in the high black walnut tree and wait. They know I will appear if only to bring the jelly. What better than fruity sweets to start the day?

Concerned about the absence of my visitors this spring, the other day I decided on the opposite approach. Instead of waiting for the first sighting before setting out the spread, I dumped an exceptionally large portion in the feeder, then loudly tapped the tablespoon, waited, watched - and hoped.

In the time it takes for a bluejay to swoop down and grab a peanut, from the black walnut there swooped a catbird to the back of the glider. Then there came the short hop to the feeder and that old familiar backward look followed by breakfast.

Perhaps there is a second catbird building a nest or tending one in the thickets in the nearby woods, maybe even others who over the winter months far away have forgotten our morning ritual. Only time will tell. But at least one has returned, and the pleasures of the season are at hand.

A Yard Full of Birds

Changes come with spring, yet some things remain the same. As usual of late, I continue to feed all the feathered visitors and will throughout the summer. The bill for the feed will, I figure, come close to $200 between now and winter, but it's money well spent. A yard full of birds is priceless.

Missing thus far, save for two appearances, are the mallards that visit for handouts of whole kernel corn. On the two occasions when ducks came, I noted they weren't the same as in the springs from '98 to 2000 when there were two drakes of mottled off-colors and a hen of traditional pattern.

This year it has been a single drake in conventional feathers and likewise for the hen he follows. The past winter, there was much shooting from brushed boats not far distant at the rocks at the mouth of Stoney Creek, and I fear the familiar drakes might have winged in too close to the decoys.

Had they survived the season, surely they would have returned by now to quack at the porch door for their handouts. From late April well into May, they sampled their daily fare from my hands before I scattered liberal portions. And the hen was always with them.

Now I wonder if the hen I've seen twice - and with a new suitor - is her, whose reticence will require much time on my part to overcome. It will be a challenge, but there are 10 pounds of corn in a canister on the porch available for my efforts. If I succeed by winter, I will worry once again that some hunter will feast on a plump mallard of exquisite taste because of its diet of sweet corn.

Each in Its Time

Diets change. For much of the winter, the mesh bag of thistle was seldom visited by finches and other small birds. But now sometimes eight to 12 crowd on it to feast. From September until three weeks ago, it needed refilling once every several weeks. Now it's daily.

Conversely, over the winter the large feeder set aside for safflower would be emptied every two to three days. Now a load lasts for a week or more. But I wonder whether it's the birds that have changed preferences or the squirrels.

I got into safflower big time 18 months ago when assured that bushytails wouldn't eat the stuff. So one feeder loaded with it was a guarantee there would always be food for birds. And so it was for several weeks. But then I noticed a squirrel or two sampling it, and eventually more and more. It was their winter diet of choice. But since the weather warmed, I've not seen a squirrel at the safflower.

The wild rabbits are enjoying the spring. They now turn their noses up at the rabbit pellets I sprinkle beneath the bird feeders. I started that routine last winter when the grass browned and I noticed they had turned to birdseed. They feasted well, but now that they have green grass and clover, pellets designed for domestic bunnies appear no longer attractive to them.

It's this time of year, the time of change, that makes the yard so interesting. While others sow their seeds in the warming soil, I scatter mine atop it or pour it into feeders. My crop is birds, squirrels and rabbits, theirs are vegetables - and I don't envy them one bit.

Two each of practically maintenance-free (other than for watering) tomato and pepper plants will again be the extent of my agricultural endeavors this year. While my neighboring 'farmers' weed, spray and hoe, I'll enjoy wildlife watching and sharing grape jelly with the catbirds.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly