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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: February 14, 2019

Conflict on the Patio

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,

When I was younger I was perplexed at what seemed like an obsession some older people had with feeding birds. The whole thing seemed boring to me, until I began to understand how much interesting behavior you can see at feeders. So after my marriage we got a bird feeder and joined the neighborhood discussions about which birds we'd been able to attract. And, of course, how irritated we were with the squirrels who not only pilfered the "bird" food but usually did their best to destroy the feeders in the process.

I didn't do much bird feeding in Oklahoma. There weren't many small birds around my house due to lack of cover, unless we had snow. If we got snow, my yard would be alive with cardinals " a delight but a very rare event. Most of the time, my feeder swung in the endless wind, spilling seed and drawing rats, lots of rats. Feeding rats is not especially rewarding, and in Oklahoma a healthy colony of rats also attracted rodent-feeding snakes. I appreciate the snakes, but preferred they reside somewhere besides my front flower garden. So much for the bird feeding there.

Once we got settled into our house in Wisconsin in October I put up a brand-new, squirrel resistant feeder in front of our living room window. The feeder is a design that has frustrated the diabolical squirrels at my Mother's house for several years, and the only animal that has breached its steel case so far is a bear. I am confident the squirrels are going to find our feeder a challenge but I am too smart to say it is squirrel proof. Don't bet too much money against those smart little acrobats.

But several months went by, and not a single bird arrived. It would seem our location is good, with the woods and plenty of cover a few yards away. But the hex was broken when I put up a suet log. The woodpeckers began hanging around, and soon I spotted the very first chickadee. Now we are enjoying a large mixed flock of visitors daily, mostly small finches, but a few nuthatches, various woodpecker species and my favorite, the cheerfully chirping tiny chickadees.

There is a definite pecking order (there's a pun there!) at the feeder. The finches, always in large gangs, rout the chickadees away when they arrive. The most dominate finches monopolize the perch on the feeder, with the rest feeding on seed I scatter under the feeder. So far no cardinals, although I'd welcome them " and I know sooner or later the blue jays I hear announcing my presence in the woods will catch on. Blue jays are beautiful and smart, but they are the terrorists of the bird feeder world. Once they take over, the rest of the birds must wait long and patiently for a turn. But for now, the good times roll for the little guys.

My house cats have a good life indoors, but they get bored. The spectacle of all those little birds hopping around just outside the patio doors is both fascinating and maddening for them. I can see them thinking "look at that delicious little tidbit." They lurk under the coffee table like panthers in the bushes, and rush the door when they can't contain themselves any longer, scattering all the birds. I love watching their natural prey drive and stalking behavior " exactly like the big cats shown on nature shows. And no birds are harmed in the process. Even our 17 year old cat, in "hospice care" in the office, hops up on the desk to study the birds on today's menu from time to time.

The dogs also keep an eye on the presence of the little prey species on the patio, but they are too cool to lose control over birds. On the other hand, when they see a squirrel in the woods, they lose their minds. The movement of a squirrel screams "chase me" to the dogs, and I know once the squirrels start trying to break into the feeder we will endure long bouts of frustrated barking.

It's hard to believe these little bundles of feathers would find enough in the barren winter woods to survive winter without my help, although I know some of them would. Looking at tonight's forecasted wind chills, I scatter a little extra seed and ensure there is a lot of suet for the woodpeckers. My help will probably ensure a higher survival rate for the small birds, in turn providing more prey for the hawks and owls both through the winter and into the spring. Some of the spilled seed from the patio is being utilized by the little black voles that are everywhere here " another source of food for raptors, plus the foxes I hope are around and the coyotes that I know are. Even Ivy and Wolfgang on leashes have managed to kill a few voles, they are so plentiful in tunnels under the snow. I can't smell or hear them, but the dogs can.

So just my single bird feeder (and heated dish of water) are impacting numerous species of birds and mammals in our woodlot. I hope my efforts are positive, but it is a good lesson in how immense, far-ranging and almost invisible the impact of human activity is on our ecosystems world-wide. It is a demonstration, on the micro-scale of my patio, that almost all of our activities have complex consequences.

Feeding birds boring? Not for me. I can see a tiny bit of the web of Wisconsin wildlife through the window while sitting on my couch. Way better than anything on TV, and a lot more illuminating.

Happy Valentine's Day to everyone. It's an occasion to appreciate all the various forms of love in your life.

Song stuck in my head: "Teach Your Children" Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Old, but has aged very well.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com


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