Our First Bird Feeder

      During the Lost Years, I spent very little attention on birds.  Of course I was happy when the Robins came back in the spring and sad when they left to go someplace nice in the fall.  Just like everyone else, I veered out of the way of vultures eating road kill.  We went to Florida a lot to see Chris’s parents.  Chris is my beautiful, intelligent wife -- artist, gourmet cook, dog-lover, nurse, great mother, and lots of other stuff too (mostly all good).  Here is an appropriate time for my second thank you.  Thank you, Chris, for challenging me to write a story about a dog.  I may do that and, if it is sufficiently sad enough to make her cry, I will include it as another appendix.  Did you go look to see if the dog story was sad enough?  Really, I don’t know yet myself.  But I’ll leave a spot for it, (A3), just in case.  So I was saying that we went to Florida a lot and couldn’t help but see flamingos.  Once during the Lost Years I saw a few Bluebirds.  And of course, I would chase the crows out of my yard.  But that’s about it.  Even while living in Delaware, a winter bird watching paradise, I managed to pay very little attention to the birds, even when they were flying across route 95 in huge flocks during our morning and evening commutes.  I bet that we drove past Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge five hundred times on our way to the beach and other points south.  Never once in thirty years did we turn in to check it out.  This is a bird watching crime of major proportions.  We noticed Tinicum near the Philadelphia airport and still haven’t visited it.  We have lived about an hour away from Hawk Mountain for a quarter of a century and never heard of it until this year.

      We did notice other wild life occasionally.  A raccoon would build her nest or den, or whatever raccoons have, behind our house and raise her little raccoons.  We could see them at night.  Our back yard was a steep hill at the top of which there was a really big concrete patio.  At the bottom there were huge bench-like concrete steps running along the entire width of the yard.  Up the middle were ordinary concrete steps leading up to the patio.  I suspect that the previous owner got a good deal on concrete.  One night I surprised the raccoon family and they all scampered back up the normal steps, except for one fat little guy who tried to go up the larger bench stairs and got stuck there.  He stayed there long enough with his fat belly stuck on the edge of the stair and his little legs pawing at the air, that I was able to wake up Chris to come see it.  For some reason, she didn’t think it was as funny as I did.  Another night I was on the back patio and our two dogs surprised the adult raccoon.  I knew the raccoon could take care of herself, but I was worried that the dogs would get hurt.  It was pitch black.  I reached into the snarling mess of sound and grabbed two animals.  I got the correct two.  I could see the raccoon’s eyes glinting as she strolled to the back of the yard, several times looking back to snarl at the dogs.  Then insultingly slowly she climbed the fence and after one last snarl disappeared into the next yard.  A few nights later, I was watching college basketball on my twenty seven inch black-and-white TV.  Yes, really.  I heard a blood-curdling scream from the backyard.  “Christ! What now?” I said to the little figures hopping around on the TV screen.  I got a flashlight and much more quickly than a prison medic trying to save a prisoner’s life, ventured back into the darkness of my back yard.  Chris was there, looking fabulous in shorts and a tank top.  “Maureen caught something yucky and whipped it against my leg!” Maureen was our Airedale Terrier.  Chris’ leg had a wet spot on it.  On the ground nearby was the wet thing, a small opossum, obviously dead.  I got the excited dogs and woman into the house and went back with a shovel to bury the poor creature.  When I got back, it was gone.

      “Playing possum”, I said to no one in particular.  “Very tricky”.  

      The opossums and raccoon were probably watching me from the other side of the fences and saying in their opossum or raccoon talk, “What an idiot that guy is!”

      Can we do one more quick dog story before we move on?  Like most Airedales, Maureen was gifted at all things athletic.  She was also very smart.  William, the other dog, not so much.  He was a Wheaton Terrier/ Poodle mix, thirty five pounds with six inch legs and a huge, goofy head.  I loved that dog.  I can still see him prancing around the yard, barking, growling, acting real tough, and basically trying to take credit for chasing off the raccoon in another backyard incident.  Meanwhile, Maureen’s tail couldn’t stop beating as Chris patched up Maureen’s raccoon-bitten ear.  William’s legs were way too short for the length of his body.  He could not walk up or down stairs normally.  He had to leap up and down, covering two or three steps in each leap.  The kind of friends that I had then (and they should all be ashamed of themselves for this ) thought it was really funny to get William to the top of the stairs on our second floor and roll a ball down the stairs, out the open front door, across the front porch, and down the porch steps.  William would chase it and get up so much speed that he would always do a face plant on the sidewalk.  After a particularly good smack down, he would prance around the yard, like he was saying, “That was a ten! Absolutely a ten! How can you call that a nine? Did you hear the smack of my face hitting the concrete? That was a ten!!”  Chris would always stop us after one or two times.

      The front porch reminded me of a Maureen story.  Please, just one more.  It’s quick.  We had some big porch furniture made partly of two by fours.  Maureen was chewing on one particular board on one particular chair and had chewed half way through the 2 inch by 4 inch board, a two by four.  In the middle of her chew spot there was a perfectly round hole and when I tapped the board it would buzz.  So I got a saw and cut through the rest of the board.  A huge bee flew out.  It was a bee called a Carpenter Bee that nests in wood.  The bee flew in a big circle around the yard, came back to the chair where its hole was now missing.  Maureen was sitting there waiting for the bee, and she ate it.

      So lots of dog stories, not much about birds, until the early 1990’s when we got our first bird feeder.  It was a squirrel proof feeder that actually worked.  It has a metal cover that comes down over the seed tray whenever something heavy lands or jumps onto the perch in front of the tray.  So little birds aren’t heavy enough to push the cover down, but squirrels snap the cover down tight.  There is a lever attached to the cover that stretches out behind the feeder that you can adjust.  If you put more weight on the back of the lever it allows heavier birds to feed.  I saw a TV show about squirrels where two squirrels actually teamed up to beat this kind of feeder.  One would sit on the lever to add his weight to it.  Then the other could eat.  Then they would switch positions and continue taking turns until they got all the seeds.  Amazing, but I saw it.  Fortunately the squirrels in my neighborhood are not so smart and have never beaten this feeder, although they have defeated other supposedly squirrel proof feeders.  If a feeder isn’t made out of metal, it is not squirrel proof.  No matter how expensive or clever a plastic feeder is made, a squirrel can simply just chew right thru the feeder to get the seeds.  And then you have an $85 hunk of plastic with big holes in it.

      I set the feeder on a pole about twenty five feet from the house in front of the kitchen window.  It was very close to the deck, a twenty foot by twenty foot monument to backyard barbecuing.  Also, right next to the feeder was a large white pine.  Forming a natural wall along one edge of the deck was a row of smaller pines.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, all this stuff made the feeder extremely attractive to some birds.  The big pine and the smaller pines provided places to hide after a trip to the feeder.  They were close enough to the food so the birds could feel very safe as they flitted back and forth between the feeder and their hiding spots.  The row of pines provided a nice roost for a flock of Mourning Doves.  These ground feeding birds are too big to get seed from the feeder, but there was plenty of spillage on the ground for them to eat.  Maybe they ate seeds from the pines as well, but I don’t know if that’s true.  For sure they got enough to eat because they stayed year round for years and raised lots of baby doves.  They used the deck and deck railings as platforms when teaching their babies to fly.  Every morning and evening for years, we could hear them cooing just outside our bed room window.  We had a steady procession of House Sparrows, which I called English Sparrows because that’s what my dad called them.  Using “Guide to North American Birds” given to me and signed by Chris’ parents in 1990, I learned the difference between House Finches and Purple Finches and we had a lot of those.  So it is time for another thank you. Thanks, Mom and Dad.  This year I found that I have an even older copy of the same manual that is not inscribed, but I think was given to me by my own parents in the 1960’s.  Thanks, Mom and Dad.  If a third copy of the manual shows up in my house, that might mean that I was adopted, I think.   Always we had Cardinals.  There were Nuthatches, Titmice, and Chickadees.  Also, Juncos.  And that’s about it.  There were probably other kinds of birds too, but we didn’t try that hard to identify them.  I was using big bags of songbird food, picking it mostly for its low cost.  It was millet with some sunflower seeds.  But there were a lot of cute and active birds using the feeder.  Chris liked it.  The kids liked it -- all preschool at this time.  And I liked it.  The birds liked it. The squirrels got at least some seed off the ground, so they probably liked it a little too.  Although squirrels are greedy creatures and seeing the treasure trove of seeds only six feet off the ground, but still out of reach, may have been driving them crazy. I hope so.

      We fed birds for three or four years and only stopped because of a West Nile Virus scare.  This was in _____ (I left the space blank to fill in the year after I Google it.  It was about 1994.  Better yet, you can Google it and just fill it in yourself.  You can use your iPhone to access the internet and get the answer in a minute I bet. There was another similar scare around 2010, but that’s not the one you are looking for).  I think a few people died nationally and there were cases of infected birds in Pennsylvania, although I don’t know if there were any reported human infections in PA.  Chris got worried that all the birds so close to the house would infect the kids with West Nile Virus.  This was non-negotiable.  The feeder was coming down.  In just a week or two all our nice bird friends moved out.  Fortunately it was summertime, so they had a good chance to find other sources of food.  It seemed especially sad when the Mourning Doves left and all that gentle cooing was gone.  And so the Lost Years started again.

      I started coaching youth baseball, basketball, and softball in 1995 and continued that to 2010.  The kids did those sports plus swimming, cross-country, and field hockey.  When the girls got into travel softball, we spent a lot of weekends at tournaments.  It was fun and gave us a lot of good memories that we built together.  Mike played baseball and basketball through his junior year in high school.  Kathryn and Rachel did swimming and softball all through high school and were the captains of those teams.  Rachel is still playing softball as a freshman in college.

      We were actually pretty busy during the Lost Years, just like people were pretty busy during the Dark Ages.  The popular misconception is that nothing really important happened in the Dark Ages;  that it was a horrible and scary time in human history, devoid of culture, science, happiness, and even lacking in simple human decency;  that the Dark Ages were an historical and cultural wasteland.  The Dark Ages are thought to be very dark and to basically suck.  (I did not steal this idea from Dave Barry – I hope?  I read a couple of his books a long time ago and think that he is really funny. This line sounds so much like something that Mr. Barry would say that I am worried that he actually did say it. So I plan to go back thru the books of his that I own to make sure that I’m not accidentally ripping off this very good writer, like George Harrison did with “My Sweet Lord” and we all know how that turned out (F4) ).  There is some truth to “the Dark Ages sucked” opinion, depending on your perspective.  Let’s say you were the Roman Catholic pope, or any other Roman in the year 500 AD.  Having an influx of immigrants into your empire, who did not join your empire, or pay your taxes, and who took advantage of your excellent road system, and refused to learn Latin, and did jobs like lawn work and other domestic services so that your own kids couldn’t get a job while they were home on their Christmas breaks (whoops, wrong empire), well you wouldn’t like it one bit.  But say you were a contemporary German, or as our text books say, a Barbarian.  Then having heated water in your house and schools for your kids would be kind of cool.  (Yes they did have indoor plumbing!)  Let’s take another example.  Let’s say you were a Briton. You would already have forgotten that you kicked out the Druids and with the help of the Romans pretty much isolated those savages to the north side of Hadrian’s Wall.  When the Romans left suddenly around 400 AD, you would have been pretty happy to get your country back, until the Angles and Saxons arrived and started to kick your butts.  So you would have raised an army and developed warfare on horseback and called your top killers the Knights of the Round Table and tried to drive the invaders out.  If you were a Saxon, on the other hand, you couldn’t help but notice that there was lots of empty unused land to graze your sheep on.  In fact, it would make good business sense for the Britons to share their unused and excess resources and gain a powerful business partner.  But since the Britons were being so pig-headed about it, you had no choice but to kill their soldiers, burn their cities, steal their women, and rape their farm animals.  I’m hoping that there really aren’t any people left who consider themselves Saxons.  If there are, and if you are offended by that last culturally insensitive remark, I apologize.  Don’t you just hate that kind of apology? But relax about that.  For those who slept through history class, which is probably everyone, the Saxons won.  King Arthur was ironically and poetically killed by his own son (remember we are talking Dark Ages here) and his body was floated off to Avalon on a beautiful barge.  So the Saxons and their buddies the Angles ran things in the British Isles until somebody else kicked their butts.  That might be the Muslims starting around 1980, but we aren’t one hundred percent sure on this yet.  It gets confusing.  The point is that there was plenty of stuff happening in the Dark Ages.  It was on the whole a time where the weather was pleasant and most people lived out their lives pleasantly harvesting, cobbling, milling, threshing, smelting, glazing, brewing, dyeing wool, baking bread, glassblowing, and other activities that we can see either in an art class or on the cooking channel.  Yes, there were some bad things like the Black Plague and the Spanish Inquisition.  And there were not many big, showy things built like pyramids, aqueducts, and cathedrals (the big Gothic ones got started near the end of the 1100s).  But if you were a German, a Viking, a Hun, a Mayan, an Incan, a Ming Dynasty guy, or a Polynesian, things weren’t really all that bad. 

      Similarly in my Lost Years, I was not birding, but I was doing other things.  When half the boards rotted in my deck, I replaced them.  When I asked the previous owner why he hadn’t used treated lumber, he said that if you build it right untreated lumber would last ten years.  When I asked him how old the deck was, he said, “Ten years”.  After another year the rest of the boards rotted, so I tore the whole deck down, which left a row of pines sticking out into the yard for no obvious purpose.  So I took those down.  Then I cut down the big pine that was too near the house.  It fell the wrong way and the guys who came to pull it off my roof had a good laugh over that.  I’m pretty sure that the really young guy with the beard was thinking “What an idiot that guy is”.   Basically, I removed all the stuff that made my previous bird feeder spot so good.  When the Lost Years ended this last spring, it took a little work to get my bird friends to come back.


Birds eating for free – Exton, Pennsylvania, 2013