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Retired publishing executive ecstatic with the idea of spending most of his time on the coast of Maine

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Gossip at the bird feeder

Quite a few years ago we hung a bird feeder from a tree branch in our backyard in Massachusetts. It quickly became a feeder for squirrels, who learned to jump from neighboring branches and demolish the contents in a couple of hours. I shouldn't be so prejudiced, I know, but arboreal rats deserve no help from humans, whereas the birdies, the cute little birdies....

Needless to say, the feeder experiment lasted but a week or two, in spite of new test branches, waving of arms, throwing of small rocks, etc. The feeder dangled forlornly for years, empty, a quiet reminder of the way of the world.

This spring our daughter came back from a stay in Deer Isle, Maine with tales to be envied. She and Max had placed a bird feeder just outside a window and could watch finches just inches away. Worse, she could go outside and sit perfectly still and chickadees would perch and eat seeds out of Bird Girl's hand. Inspired, we dusted off our feeder, slung the rusty chain over the bend of the downspout just outside our kitchen window, bought a huge bag of pumpkin seed, and waited.

The house finches, being used to us, came almost immediately. So did a lot of other species. and all was terrific for several days. I too would be a Bird Man. Then the level of seeds in the tube dropped alarmingly one day, and we discovered that a squirrel had cracked the case: it climbed up the rhododendron, jumped over to cling to the screen on the window, then leaped to the feeder. Some yelling ensued. Just one particularly agile and intelligent beast was hoped for. Unfortunately, the case was not isolated. It happened again, same squirrel, different squirrel, it didn't matter. We were beaten again. There's nothing quite so infuriating, by the way, as the sight of a splay-legged squirrel glaring at you from your screen, when you were hoping for the bluebird of happiness.

The feeder, dutifully filled and re-filled, went back down to the trees. Lots of birds came. So did squirrels. We greased the baffle - didn't work. They still climbed down the chain, got the feeder to rocking a bit, then artfully landed on the backswing. Feeder got moved. Now they jumped from other branches, or in a pre-Olympian try-out for the high jump, from the ground. Our one moment of pleasure came from a bird that seems to hate squirrels even more than we do. The usual feeding frenzy above and below was interrupted one day by a female turkey who spread her tail and ruffled her feathers and stretched out her long neck as she pursued the squirrels into the underbrush. We knew she was female because she was accompanied by five goblets, who clearly appreciated her efforts to clear the room for their own scavenging.

That seemed a good way to end the experiment for good.

On Friday, however, I reviewed the situation once more, with the aid of a ladder. The feeder now hangs from a very long chain, out of reach of other branches, high enough off the ground. A delightful two days have followed, full of sparrow and chickadee, of wren and finch and nuthatch and blue jay, of the female cardinal and her mate who appears to have alopecia, and of the grackle, ah the grackle, squirrel of the sky, whose iridescent blue hood shines beautifully in the sun but who is big and black and intimidates the smaller birds and gobbles down the seeds as fast as any squirrel. Oh well, we've got lots of seeds, and lots of glee, for the regular squirrels are reduced to scrounging around on the ground for leftovers. So far, that is.

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