Monday, March 04, 2013

Expanding the Franchise

The bird feeder in the backyard continues to attract a growing population. It's just far enough away from the windows that we can't always see much detail however. This means we mostly see, as Bill puts it, 'cardinals and little guys.' I have been able to identify several kinds of sparrows, a variety of finches, lots of chickadees and juncos, and a handful of nuthatches, but it's not easy. Bill and I watched as one squirrel managed to climb up the pole and reach the feeder, but his attempt to get onto the (too small) platform sent him plummeting to the ground. This of course meant some seed fell, so it wasn't a completely wasted effort, but he probably doesn't see it that way. 

I had reported some bird-watching details on Facebook which caused one friend to share the story of her own feeders. She had enjoyed having them until she realized how much more her cats were enjoying the abundant bird buffet. Not wanting to lure birds to their deaths, she decided to get rid of the feeders. I commiserated, but said confidently that I didn't think I'd have the same problem. The feeder is mounted five feet up a pole that sits several feet away from any trees, bushes or roofs. I was mostly intent on not making things TOO easy for squirrels, but impeding land predators seemed like a side benefit. 

The next morning, less than twelve hours after this interchange, I looked out the back window, and there, as if conjured by my hubris, was a large, healthy tiger cat. He was sitting comfortably right at the base of the pole. I saw no evidence of carnage, fortunately, no feathers floating about or birdy body parts scattered on the ground, but naturally I also saw no birds. 

I trust that five feet up will be enough distance to protect the birds, and the ground feeders should have enough time to notice and flee a galloping kitty; there really is no place he can hide and sneak up on them. The cat clearly didn't have a very high opinion of bird intelligence. I'd assume sitting at the base of the pole wasn't going to  prove an effective strategy. Bill says he hasn't seen the cat again in the last week and the birds quickly returned. 

With this feeder, I have seen behavior I've never noticed before at other feeders; from time to time a solitary bird has sat on the ringed perch for up to thirty minutes. It might eat sporadically, but most of the time it just stays in place, perhaps meditating, or getting a new perspective on things. Other birds come and go without any objection from the sitter. This doesn't seem to be a territory issue. I've seen this behavior at different times from a male cardinal, a house sparrow, and a chickadee. It's as if the feeder has become the local Starbucks; some people come just for the atmosphere, or to get out of the house. 

There has occasionally been some territorial conflict as well, however. I saw a tufted titmouse, no doubt over-compensating for his name, chase all other birds away from the feeder. It didn't seem like a good use of his time, I thought. He spent all his time chasing other birds, he rarely got to eat, from what I could tell. 

Bill, for whom this is all new, says he's been enjoying the feeder more than he expected. My hope that this would shake up and enliven the energy of the house seems to be working. Flush with the quick success of that feeder, I ended buying two more for the front yard. Another seed feeder and a suet feeder hung from the maple tree in the front yard for this past week. This location hasn't proven as popular with the avian set as the backyard just yet, though there has been some activity; I wonder if the proximity to the street makes them nervous. After seeing the cat, I also wondered if a tree would prove a dangerous location for a feeder, but so far that doesn't seem to be a problem. Bill reported that a squirrel did her damnedest to reach the suet feeder, dangling by her hind legs and stretching to get the cage. He said it was like watching a scene from Mission Impossible. He's coming to find he shares my sister's feelings about squirrels; one ends up kind of rooting for them. You watch them working so hard: studying the physics, doing the math, drawing up blueprints, then engaging in daredevil acrobatics that astonish and amaze. It seems petty to deny them any success they achieve. 

My tinkering continues; after realizing that we had the same problem with the front feeder as we do with the backyard's--we can't really see the little guys--I decided to hang the seed feeder from the eaves. It now hangs about a foot away from one window. So far the birds are not in favor, but I assume this is just their innate caution about change. I respect that. 

Periodically I'll notice how much time and attention I've devoted to these feeders in the past three weeks, and I get a little embarrassed. When I see friends, this is often the first (if not only) think I talk about if they ask me what's new. I try to pay attention for moments when their eyes glaze over, because if left to my own devices I DO go on. The fact is though, the feeders and birds have made me happy. I feel like I've been engaging with the local environment in a satisfying way. I'll take it. 


Java said...

Did you see the article recently about how many small animals are killed by the domestic kitty cat? It's an amazingly large number, also one of those niggly details I tend to forget.

Good luck with your feeders - attracting the birds but not the squirrels or hunter cats.

Brian said...

Just call it a cat feeder from the get-go. No need to feel guilty about unintended consequences if you intend them!

Patrick said...

Java, I don't think I've seen that specific article, but I've read a book by a woman who does bird and animal rehabilitation, and she is positively scathing on the subject of house-cat predation. Originally I just figured it was a fairly minor thing, but I seem to remember there are several species in danger of extinction purely due to house pets.

Brian. Well, that certainly is A plan. I think I'd stock a cat feeder with something other than songbirds however. Maybe I need to construct an apparatus that throws kitty kibble in enticing ways, so they get the thrill of the hunt. Hm. I smell money-maker!