Wednesday, February 27, 2008

For the Birds

This morning my husband asked me the name of the orange and white-breasted bird on the feeder. It was a towhee, the one bird who uses his feet to scratch at the ground for his breakfast, but this one seemed to prefer the Hot Bites we feed our backyard visitors. 

I don't know when I first started learning to identify feeder birds, but my mother taught me the skill. We keep binoculars by the kitchen table, pulling them out to more closely examine the nuances between the Carolina Wren and the House Wren, or to watch the red-tailed hawks landing on the highest branches of our wintering trees. Years ago our backdoor neighbor was a retired doctor who spent hours, it seemed, sitting in a lawn chair, looking up at the warblers in his trees. 

While I enjoyed birds then, two little children swinging in the back yard kept me to busy to look beyond them and into the trees. I'll never be so old as that, I thought. Well. I have been known lately to pull up the deck chair and watch.

Most of the birds are frequent visitors here, but occasionally I do see a rare sight: cedar waxwings devouring berries on a bush; a scarlet tanager whistling in the spring, a Baltimore Oriole who stopped to rest in our yard for a day or two. I set up my office desk so I can catch a flit or flutter here and there as I write.

Today, in the span of only a few minutes, one of the largest hawks I have seen in this area landed on a bed of leaves high in an oak that wavers in the February wind. He started picking at the leaves — a squirrel's nest — his wings flapping as his giant talons searched for a mid-morning snack. Down below, the bluebird couple that had been eyeing our house decided on taking a tour.
They might be the same couple who raised three clutches last year, the first eggs laid in March. I counted six eggs — fretting during the hard freeze that followed, then missed the fledg
ing. I fed them meal worms, Papa Bluebird watching closely from a nearby branch as I sprinkled breakfast on the top of the house. The second clutch was also six, the third five, and I was home the day the last three babies took flight, wringing my hands like a grandmother watching her grandchild's first steps. 

I've been used to the fledgings of our house wrens, who each year tuck their nests of pine straw into the tight corners in our garage. Last spring mom made her nest in the nest of beach chairs on top of the fridge, eyeing me each morning when I came in from my walk. One of her babies flew into the house one morning when I left the back door open, ending up in my daughter's room on the third floor of our house, clinging to the curtains and trying to fly out of the skylights. 

I love the activity, how the birds gather their colors in the dogwood to wait their turn at the feeder like party guests gathered around the dip table. The mothers nudge, the fathers feed, the babies fly away. Just like real life.