• Dana Webster

Bird-brained

Updated: Mar 8


pigeons
The Ubiquitous Pigeon

Before moving to the country, I didn't really notice that birds existed except in a ho-hum way.


I grew up in the heart of the city where pigeons were ubiquitous. On my walk to school, I had to pass under a railway bridge where, it seemed, half the world's population of pigeons lived and shat. It was a crap shoot (yeah, I went there) as to whether I'd make it to the other side without a little gooey white something left behind on my shoulder or in my hair. Looking up to gauge the birds' location was ill-advised. When the city undertook to cull the pigeon masses via birth control in their feed, I rejoiced. But, later, when there was nary a pigeon underfoot, I missed them. Pigeons are a defining icon of city life.

I'd never had a backyard bird feeder. Living in the suburbs as an adult, we always had outdoor cats so, deliberately enticing birds to our property seemed unduly cruel. As it was, the cats managed to stalk, kill and behead enough of their own birds and other small animals without our help. They say that when cats bring a dead or half-dead thing home that they are trying to teach us how to hunt for ourselves. I always thought that was cute.

But, now we live in the country and our cats don't go outside. The chill of a coyote pack's howl and the sighting of weasels and fishers was all we needed to keep our kitties inside. They may be natural killing machines but, in the country, cats are way down food chain. So, for the first time in my life, I put up a bird feeder and the wonderful world of birds opened up for me.

Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker

At first, I delighted in the chickadees, bluejays, robins and crows - birds I could identify on my own. But then birds I did not know started to arrive and partake. So I bought a book on avian identification and found nuthatches and junkos. Added to my list were mourning doves, cardinals, hummingbirds, and a variety of woodpeckers including the elusive pileated woodpecker after whom Woody the Woodpecker was fashioned.

The American Goldfinch I nicknamed my asylum seekers.

The bird seed attracts other animals, too, like chipmunks and squirrels. Which, in turn, attracts prey birds like the hawk that one day swooped down, grabbed a chipmunk off the ground and swooped back up into the air, all in one smooth and lightening-fast movement.


For a few weeks in the summer of 2019, lovely Tomasina, the wild turkey, graced us with her presence. She hung around the house, slept on a branch way up in the oak tree, and drank water from our side yard pond. She got pretty used to our comings and goings and eventually paid us little heed when we ventured near to her. And then, one day, she was just gone. I like to think she found a mate and moved on to a life of companionship and, possibly, babies. (Of course, she could have been a he; I have no idea how to tell them apart but, either way, I hope love and happiness was found).

Tomasina

The longer I spend observing the birds who visit our feeder, the better I get to know them. Every spring, there is a pair of crows who nests in a tall pine tree nearby. I watch as they fly around collecting bits of leaves and twigs and take them back to plump the nest. Later, a whole host of young crows and their parents caw and swoop amongst the trees and sometimes, timidly, approach the bird feeder. I had the pleasure one morning of watching a particular crow puzzle out how to open the suet cage that was hanging four feet above the ground. Its renowned ingenuity paid off and the spoils belonged to the victor.

Having been here in Mono for four years now, I have had the opportunity to observe the birds from one season to another, from one year to the next. In springtime, I'm like a kid in a candy store when the birds who have wintered elsewhere start to turn up again. I dutifully pull out my bird book and record the date of their arrival. Up till now, my engagement with birding has been haphazard and limited to those who show up in my backyard. But I am finding myself more deeply drawn to them as I become more familiar with their behaviour patterns. I'd made the mistake of seeing a single breed of bird as one identical assembly-line processed mono-species. But the closer I observe, the more I detect their individuality. Some chickadees are more carefree than others; some crows more engaging, less introverted, than their brethren.

I have learned to identify the sounds of many birds:

  • My favourite is the call of the red-winged blackbird because it reminds me of my childhood.

  • The song of the chickadee who sings its own name - Chicka-dee-dee-dee.

  • The forthright tone of the bluejay as it alerts its clan to a freshly stocked feeder.

The top of my bird sighting list is the time this past summer when Paul and I saw a peregrine falcon lift off the ground, it's enormous, magnificent wings moving up and then down as though in slow-motion. On my list of hopefuls is an owl in its own habitat and swans in flight.

I've been thinking about becoming a full-on birding wonk with the Tilley hat and high-powered binoculars. I could subscribe to a myriad of apps and magazines and Societies all with the purpose of spotting and recording the thousands of bird species that live among us. Maybe I'll get there. Maybe not. For now, I have my feeder, my ancient pair of binoculars, and my books to record sightings. Most of all, though, I have a newfound respect and affection for birds of all kinds.

Asylum Seekers Welcome Here!

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