Since late September I’ve been keenly conscious of feeding the birds who inhabit or visit our backyard. In the spring and summer it is apparent that they are thriving and feeding well but I worry about how they will get through the winter, as if they have not been doing it for a few million years without my help. Those that stay in our area for the long season of frost and cold are not necessarily the most colorful– our favorite bluebirds have moved on and migrated south– but there is the occasional bright red cardinal, and a multitude of scurrilous bluejays, who are not only loud but seem to travel in clusters, notifying each other when they locate a food source, and then fighting over it once they find it.
More interesting to me are the mourning doves, and I always root for them to find the most recent seed I’ve scattered, before the squirrels and bluejays come along to eat more than their share. Mourning doves not only make the coolest sounds with their wings, when they whoosh in and out, they seem the most graceful and elegant of the year-round birds, and somehow, the most appreciative of what I do as well.
The smaller birds are more abundant, and flit in and out much quicker and more regularly. White-throated sparrows, chickadees, all manner of finches, nuthatches and juncoes– I am still trying to distinguish among the crop of what my friend Dave used to simply call “lgb’s”– little grey birds. What I like about them is their resourcefulness– they will come closer to the house than any of the others, landing on the deck and cleaning up whatever seeds or crumbs have spilled between slats, making a opportunistic meal out of the smallest of scraps and leftovers. I have gotten to the point where I try not to waste anything that could be construed as “birdfood”– dried-out corn-muffin crumbs, the residue of whole wheat crumbs in the bottom of each plastic bag, the sesame seeds that fall off a bagel, and the uneaten toast crusts that my family or guests leaves behind– this is all “free or recycled birdfood” as I see it– and much better for the support of backyard wildlife than to simply toss it in the garbage to end up in a landfill or a burn plant.
When things were really tough a couple years back, I developed a corollary in my moments of fear and worry– if we fed the birds, the Universe would take care of us. I must have gotten that sense from my paternal grandmother, Memere– who was notorious for her fanatic feeding of stray cats, back in Manchester, Connecticut, when I was growing up. She had nurtured her family through the Great Depression and was never well enough off to be considered a philanthropist, except to all those scrawny cats she supported. Any mere scrap or shred of uneaten meat or cheese rinds, chicken skin, gravy, trimmed fat or gristle, would be put outside for those mewing cats who gathered each morning and evening at her backdoor. Any milk leftover from cereal dishes or supoer glasses, same thing– nothing was wasted. As long as some living creature in need could use the nourishment, it was gratifying to her, and nothing was discarded that had some nutritional value down the food chain.
The same principle goes for those of us who compost every shred of leftover vegetable matter– salad trimmings, potato skins, pumpkin remnants, the inedible parts of carrots and celery stalks, tomatoes or fruits that go bad in the refrigerator. They are gathered up nightly and put out of the compost heap where the rabbits and chipmunks and deer have first crack at them, before decomposition sets in. We are lucky to be out in the country so we don’t have to worry about rodents as city-dwellers might– our compost heap is back near the stonewall, a hundred feet behind the house, so we keep the critters at a distance.
Since we don’t have a stray cat population to take care of, the meat scraps and leftovers go way out back– to the exposed rock at the rear of our property which I have dubbed the sacrificial stone dish– this is at the edge of the deep woods, and I would guess I am feeding a fox or two, perhaps an elusive fisher we have seen slither by once or twice, and the omnipresent crows usually find whatever the predators leave behind, or missed. I’ve put out entire chicken or turkey carcasses once the soup broth was cooked, and a day later — found no trace, bones and all, neatly spirited away. Somehow, this form of natural recycling is comforting to me– we are sharing all forms of food products with predators, scavengers, four-legged creatures, herbivores, feathered friends, of all kinds.
What does this have to do with life in Saratoga? The answer, if I had to make one up (which I do for the sake of this blog at this moment) is to describe why I live 9 miles out of the city itself, instead of within its municipal limits. In our backyard, on the plateau below Lake Desolation, in the past 9 years, we have seen multiple wild turkeys (increasingly common now; rare in my youth), a red fox or two, pheasants and partridge, a few generations of deer. But more unique than that: a lynx, an elusive fisher (also called a marten), and, I swear, a well-muscled young grey wolf, trotting past behind the stone wall. Most manuals on NYS wildlife will tell the reader that 2 of the 3 mammals in that last sentence do not exist as visible populations in our area, but I personally believe they are wrong, as do a lot of my fellow residents out near the Palmertown Ridge foothills of the Adirondacks.
But the most bizarre sight occurred one night at dinner, as I looked out above the deck to the top of the pergola, where I saw the double-curved neck of a red plumed, hooked-beak bird that looked like something out of a cartoon. It seemed to see ME once I noticed it through the back atrium door, and turned to fly off, startled. The word that ran through my mind was “QUETZACOTL”– a mythical Mexican creature defined in Webster’s Unabridged as a “feathered serpent god of the Aztec and Toltec cultures.” That was how colorful and collosally exotic the winged thing seemed to me, having lived in this area a long damn time without ever seeing it before. My wife got out her Audobon book that evening and concluded that it had to have been a baby great blue heron, the only bird in our climate with a neck shaped like that. I’ve never known them to come that close to a residence, though the elder versions are seen in flight quite often, usually in a solitary fashion. I always take it as a good sign when one is seen overhead. You might also see them standing, stork-like, on one slender leg, ready to spear a fish in a shallow pond or swamp. But to see one near a bird-feeder, that was most unusual, and I don’t think it would happen in or on the fringes of the City.
In summation, I look at living a rustic lifestyle more as a poet and private guy than I do as a wildlife biologist, or serious bird-watcher. Still, part of the charm of being out here lies in knowing that Saratoga is only a 15-minute ride away… I’ll return to the virtues of our small, idyllic city with my next post, promise. Meanwhile, I’m on my way to Agway for more birdseed.
Copyright Wayne Perras 2012