Feed the Birds
Even before I became truly interested in birds we hung feeders, hoping to attract them. At one home we had a large crab apple tree in our yard, much more popular than anything else we could provide. It was always interesting to watch birds gorge on the sour fruit, more particularly after it had begun to ferment. As unkind as it may sound it was entertaining to watch robins and waxwings attempt to fly that would have been arrested if they had been caught driving. At our next home we enjoyed an almost daily parade of northern cardinals and blue jays to and from our offerings of peanuts and seeds. One summer a pair of wild mallards nested in our front yard, although we were none too close to the river. They were remarkably habituated for wild animals. Every morning they would half-waddle, half-fly up our steps and peck on the front door, quacking for handouts of bread. Despite their charm and persistence the neighborhood raccoons eventually forced them away.
Although our present home is wonderfully near a national forest our yard is woefully bleak as far as avian habitat goes. Still, we fill and hang the feeders and the birds come, sometimes in remarkable numbers and with unexpected variety. One benefit of this openness is it permits us to observe birds and behaviors we would otherwise never see. However, humans are not the only ones to take advantage of this opportunity. Sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper’s hawks nest a few hundred yards from our home and remain in the area year round. They know our yard well. During the summer, when the scrub oak forests are filled with warblers, vireos, and grosbeaks, these raptors seldom visit. But during the hungry months we see them often, sometimes daily, perched in neighboring trees, watching, patiently watching.
And commonly more than watching. The hawks are not always successful in their attempts but often enough. They frequently fly to the fence to enjoy their meal, sometimes still squirming in their fierce talons. It is, at the same time, fascinating and macabre to watch them dine. They tear the feathers from their prey with sweeping movements of their bills. Other than that, almost nothing goes to waste. Beaks, bones, blood, tiny legs, guts, it all disappears, into the fearsome maw. The process is as quick as it is efficient. Fifteen minutes for a goldfinch or pine siskin, perhaps a bit more for larger prey. And every time, as I watch this I marvel, as what was – just moments before – a living, breathing, creature becomes a part of another living, breathing creature, the smaller bird subsumed by the larger. When the raptor finally finishes and flies lazily away I sometimes wander out to pay my respects. A few feathers on the ground, perhaps a drop of blood on the fence post, the only reminders of the life that was.