Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Feeding Birds

2012, Mom's birthday 

I began feeding the birds for my mother. Housebound by the frailties of age and the attitude that going out was too much trouble, she needed a connection to the outside world, I thought.

My earliest memory is of my mother and her mother wielding garden hoes in an attempt to fend off a snake attacking a nest of baby birds. I'd awakened from a nap and stretched myself taller than the windowsill to watch the drama unfold outside her bedroom. "Get him, Ethel!" my grandmother shrieked at her namesake. "You get him, Ethel," my mom yelled back, addressing her mother by her given name instead of calling her mom. The two Ethels wacked away, and as I recall, emerged victorious although the senior Ethel's askew babushka made her look something like a pirate. My mom probably lit herself a cigarette right there in the bushes while coo-ing over the baby birds before they went on to whatever task they'd meant to do in the first place.

my babushka-wearing, gun-toting grandma (the gun and the old car was staged by one of my uncles)

We lived on the backwater of the Mississippi then in a town known for its lax liquor laws and an easier attitude toward certain recreational pursuits that were frowned upon on in its sister city on the other side of the river. I was too young to know about any of that, but I knew about the birds. Cranes soared over the water and we raced out the back door to watch them, and if flocks of geese were winging and quacking overhead, we tilted our faces skyward until they were out of sight. Cardinals and red-headed wood peckers provided breathtaking displays of scarlet against the dark bark of a big tree where my father had nailed a wooden fruit crate. It was my mother and I who kept it stocked with seeds and nuts and bread crusts.

Indoors we kept a green parakeet named Jerry. "Jerry is a dirty bird" was his only attempt at conversation. Or maybe his line was, "Jerry is a pretty bird," and it was my mother who tried to pressure a confession from him while she cleaned up his messes after a free-flying afternoon. I wonder now about our kitchen hygiene since it was there he was allowed out of his cage, an old bedsheet tacked up in the doorway to the living room to keep him from pooping on the upholstered furniture. But nobody died--except Jerry of course, eventually.

Jerry didn't make it to the next house which was on the more sedate side of the river--a good thing, probably, since we became cat fanciers and often had a half-dozen kittens and cats prowling around. My brother and I found a baby owl on a sidewalk there. My mother couldn't locate the nest it might have fallen from, so she put it in a box padded with an old towel on our back porch. I'm sure she took some measure or another to nurse it back to health, but in the morning, it was dead.

Years later when they were both widows my mother and her twin sister had an apartment with a patio and fed all kinds of birds--including a large vulture that was attracted to a suet cake meant for a pileated woodpecker. I'd had some experience feeding birds by then, but I specialized in finches that I fed from a feeder suction-cupped to my breakfast nook window where my young daughters could enjoy them. Decades later, when my mom moved in with me in a different house, I bought a similar feeder and stuck it to our kitchen window. We remarked on the birds nearly every day. Some red house finches, some orange. We welcomed the sparrows too--the white crowned sparrow, the diva of an underrated species with its flashy striped head, and the house sparrow so dapper in its dark cravat.

One of my daughters lived with us part-time then while going to grad school. She might have been the one to notice the blind finch being fed by a bird with two good eyes. Over the next few days there were more and more blind finches. "Poor things," my mother said. "How do they fly?" Fearing that I'd unwittingly committed this horror of an avian Equus, I examined the feeder and the potted tree next to it for sharp edges only to find nothing. It was the internet that educated me about bird conjunctivitis and proper feeder hygiene. Jerry the parakeet could poop in the kitchen sink with no apparent ill effects on us humans, but I had to wash the bird feeder with soap and a drop of bleach in hot water every week.

My mother and I both took to the new regimen. She could clean anything with the same fervor she employed to dispatch a marauding snake, and over time no new blind finches appeared. Occasionally we spotted a different bird--a towhee, or a warbler, and once we glimpsed a bird such a bright yellow, it might have been an escaped pet canary. The first ring-necked dove appeared some weeks or months after my boyfriend Dan died. It was one of those moments when you think your deceased beloved has re-appeared or at least delivered to you a sign that you should not despair. The bird watched us with its big dark eyes. Friends were here for dinner, as I recall. "Look who wants to come inside," someone said.

Sometime later the dove began bringing a mate, and I'd take a handful of food and lay it atop the wall between my house and the neighbor's since these birds seemed too big for the feeder. If I was upstairs and missed their arrival my mother would call, "Your doves are here!" as if dinner guests had just rung the doorbell. The doves would probably still be enjoying my handouts even though my mom is no longer here to announce them, but a squirrel began terrorizing the bird feeder just after the 2017 presidential inauguration. It was a tumble-down of decline then, as we well know. First one squirrel, then another, and the squirrels could not be dissuaded so I removed the feeder before I went away to a month-long writer's residency. When I returned my flowers were infested with some kind of a worm despite the best efforts of the friend caring for them. Since we all know that the early bird gets the worm, I put the bird feeder up again. The doves, the sparrows, and the finches  came back--but so did a hoard of pigeons, making Jerry's efforts to defile the kitchen look like child's play. While it's true the pigeon poop was outside, on some surfaces it took a putty knife and boiling water to remove it, and the pigeons' constant coital-sounding cooing had me wondering if the neighbors should maybe soundproof their house until I realized this birds and bees thing was really just birds.

Like the squirrels, the pigeons wouldn't be dissuaded either, so with strips of that rubbery stuff that you can use as shelf lining or rug padding and some packing tape, I constructed a barrier around the my bird feeder that allowed only the smaller birds inside. When it came time to wash the feeder, I had to un-tape all the strips, wash them as well, and start over. A few weeks of that led to a splurge on a feeder with a cage around it. The new feeder, though I called it bird jail at first, is working well. The pigeons are feeding at my neighbor's unsecured feeder on the other side of the house and pooping over there. But I feel terrible  about the doves. They can't get into the new feeder either. They still arrive every couple of days, fluttering around the bird jail, confused. I look into their deep black eyes staring into my house full of worldly comforts and think of Dan and my mom and how we all were here just a little more than four years ago. Four years is a long time.

Christmas, 2012

I want to say something political here. About the elapsing of time until the next presidential election. And something about jail. Who belongs inside and who should be let out, but maybe it's best not to stretch the metaphor. I'll just quote my dad when he began to worry during my teenage years. "Birds of a feather flock together," he told me.

bird jail


Allison said...

We spend winters in Tucson. By March the sound of the doves' two note song, and the pigeons' cooing begins to grate on my nerves. They're all bound and determined to build nests on the rungs of the ladders that hang on the back of the RV. We can only feed the hummingbirds. Seed feeders attract pack rats, and pack rats eat the wiring and insulation on RVs.
I can't believe it's been four years.
On the political, please oh please let the house and senate turn blue, let them impeach him and send him to jail. I wonder if we'll ever be the same, he's released a lot of ugly into the ether.

Elizabeth said...

Such a beautiful post -- it could be in the New Yorker.

S Kay Murphy said...

I agree with Elizabeth; this is the stuff of the New Yorker.

Having fed birds for decades--in Rancho Cucamonga, up at 6,200ft. elevation in Mt. Baldy (oh the jays and woodpeckers and juncos!) and now here in Calimesa (with Mr. and Mrs. Goldfinch successfully bringing their brood of lively colorful children to the feeder this year)--I love this so, and the care you have taken in feeding them properly. Out here, my greatest concern is the Cooper's hawk that sometimes shows up to sit in my neighbor's tree and wait for a free lunch. When I see her, I scare her off (even though I adore birds of prey). I know she's there because the yard goes eerily quiet....

Thanks for sharing another beautiful post with us.