In these low times of Donald Trump and the global pandemic I have taken to spending part of each day watching birds from my dining room window. As far as I can make out, the pandemic is doing them no harm.
I’ve always had a thing for birds. We had several budgies growing up and a pair of canaries, named Fred and Wilma after the Flintstones, who were big at the time. The ringing phone would set old Fred off and he would trill at maximum volume for the first few minutes of a call. Exhilarating but irritating if you had important matters to discuss, as a kid does.
As a youngster, I made several attempts at rescuing baby birds that had fallen from their nests, mostly sparrows and robins, nursing them with milk from eyedroppers with mixed results. When I was old enough to get out and about on my own, I took up the curious hobby of egg hunting.
Looking back, I suppose it had the same pull for a young Alberta boy as hunting did for some friends. I stalked birds armed with my Red Ryder BB gun a couple of times but didn’t have the heart for it once I saw my quarry fall bleeding to the ground. It felt like murder.
Egg collecting was a thing back in the day when kids were allowed to roam free. My buddies and I would go on expeditions into the woods, fields and sloughs on the outskirts of Edmonton in search of bird nests. The idea was to take a single egg from the nest, bring it home, delicately prick it with a pin at both ends and gently blow the yolk through the bottom hole leaving only the shell, which would be carefully placed in a jigsaw puzzle box filled with sawdust in order of large to small. I think I got somewhere around the 50-mark, the largest being a goose and the smallest a chickadee.
In my early teens I had visions of raising and training falcons. I got books on falconry at the library and eventually settled on Kestrels, small falcons common to the prairies also known as Sparrow Hawks. A friend and I rode our bikes to St. Albert, about 10 kilometers, where I had discovered a nest in a hole in a tree in the bush across from my uncle’s farm. I took the fluffy grey gaffer home but made little progress with the complicated business of training, which required leather hoods and an assortment of paraphernalia, as well as patience and discipline which I did not possess.
Sparrow Hawks, though mercifully not as long-lived as parrots, are cantankerous and noisy. They do not sing but instead emit ear damaging screeches when hungry and can shoot a stream of liquid shit six feet. They require dead animals with fur for digestion and I had to overcome my earlier squeamishness and shoot sparrows baited with bread crumbs on the back lawn (murder with a purpose, like the hunters say), then throw their quivering still warm little bodies into the cage. My mom let me keep dead gophers in the freezer.
One morning I found my poor falcon dead, with its feet sticking straight up. I have not kept a caged bird since. Of all God’s creatures, they are meant to be free. Which brings me back to my dining room window.
I have recorded 30-odd species at the bird feeders, which located only a foot or so from the glass afford a great opportunity for up-close watching. There is much to observe once you discern the various idiosyncrasies of the bird world.
I would have traded two glossy white Red-Shafted Flicker eggs for a California Quail egg in my youth. The bird that is ubiquitous here in the desert was a no-show in the colder climate of Edmonton.
California Quail are comical in that they sport head feathers reminiscent of the helmet adornments of Roman soldiers in old Hollywood epics. Like most birds, the male’s head feather is more resplendent, as is his coloring. They tend to travel in bunches divided into pairs and are prodigious breeders. The female lays up to 18 eggs in a ground nest often located under a clump of overgrown grass. I once found one in the side yard while mowing the lawn.
What sets them apart in the bird world is they prefer walking to flight, although they have no trouble assuming high perches when on lookout duty. It is always a delight to watch the clan walking up the paths on their daily visits to the feeder, especially when the tiny yellow chicks are scuttling between mom and dad.
Life is dangerous in the desert for a scuttling baby bird without its flying feathers and there is no doubt a high mortality rate. Even so, they are multiplying in numbers that are severely cutting into my bird food allowance. California Quail are voracious eaters and a decade into being their main provider I have the distinct feeling I am feeding not only parents and their offspring but also grandkids and assorted cousins.
When the feeder is empty, a lookout is posted in a tree overlooking the yard. As soon as I open the storage box where the seed is kept, the familiar call rings out through the neighbourhood, a kind of high-pitched ka-ka-kii-ii sound that alerts their fellow freeloaders. Within minutes of the full feeder being placed on the stand, the flock descends on the yard to peck and scratch the grass and the rocky ground beneath the feeder, which is what California Quail are supposed to do. But somewhere along the way an enterprising Quail discovered the eating was easier if he flapped his wings a couple of times and perched on the feeder.
The problem being, from a birdwatchers’ perspective, is that two or three fat Quail perched on the feeder leave little room for the small songbirds trying to get a meal in. I rectified this problem somewhat by placing a second feeder filled with Nyjer, a pricier confection preferred by finches. These melodic members of the bird community come in a variety of colours from the Purple House Finch to the bright yellow canary-like American Gold Finch.
I have counted upwards of 35 California Quail in the side yard and the same number of White-crowned Sparrows, who forage the grass in lightning quick two-footed hops if there is no room at the feeder.
Perhaps the most serene visitors are a pair of Mourning Doves that alight on the stand’s metal perches and politely wait their turn. Mourning Doves, a variety of pigeon, come in creamy grey with delicate black necklaces. Their soft coo is soothing.
Chickadees, though the smallest of the side yard’s feathered habitués, are perhaps the torquiest, ounce for ounce. They are usually in and out in a matter of seconds but will boldly descend with an unmoving human only a foot or so away. One once stopped on my shoulder for a moment before flitting off on more important business. Their distinctive chickadee-dee-dee call, rising in octaves on the latter two syllables, is always a delight.
We feed tiny Calliope Hummingbird, the smallest breeding bird in North America, at the front feeder, away from the backyard hubbub. The males are extremely aggressive; they dive bomb and buzz each other in dazzling aerial displays.
For an old egg hunter, no bird call heralds the arrival of spring like the trill of a Redwing Blackbird. They nest in the wetlands adjacent to the lakes and sloughs, weaving their nests in the reeds above the water. They must be well-connected on the bird telegraph because in early spring, with eggs in the nest, they frequently make the short flight from the water’s edge to the Maloney’s smorgasbord.
Like all communities the bird world has its villains. I know they’re coming before they touch down by the immediate and instinctive vacating of the feeder by all other birds. The most frequent visiting villain is the Stellar’s Jay. Beautifully blue, with large black beaks and impressive feathered cowlicks, they brook no interference when it comes to a free meal. A pair has been nesting in the Ponderosa Pine on the other side of the house for several years, but they are only occasional visitors to the feeder, preferring other birds’ eggs and their young to seeds and kernels of corn. They screech unharmoniously and are aggressive in manner.
Top dog at the bird feeder, if that is an apt way to describe a flying work of art, is the much maligned Magpie. Although not gifted with a melodic call, these ubiquitous birds observed up close are stunning in their iridescent beauty. Black and white, with sheens of deep blue that literally shine in the right angle of the sun, Magpies are also eaters of other birds’ eggs and babies and as such are unwelcome the Darth Vaders of the song bird community. Last year a pair nested in the rose bush at the foot of the driveway. When they vacated the premises, a California Quail couple moved right in, as I discovered while pruning the bush. The Quail sometimes produce two broods a year.
The world of birds is fraught with danger. To watch them at length is to know they are aware of their precarious perch on the planet, constantly on the lookout, swiveling heads monitoring their environment, flight reflexes on high alert for instant takeoff. Pandemic-like precautions are an everyday thing for our feathered friends.