Coming up with that title made me think of my favorite song from Mary Poppins. “Feed the Birds” has a whole different mood from the others—less “Disneyish” if you will. Apparently P. L. Travers agreed, and it’s reported to be what won her over to making the movie.
But my point isn’t the song or the movie, as much as I love both. My point is feeding birds and what you can learn about them and yourself in the process.
It’s something I’ve done since I was a kid, tossing seed onto the roof outside my bedroom window. When I moved to an apartment building, I bought a feeder with suction cups so I could attach it to the outside of a window. I, and my cats, watched sparrows, house finches, and chickadees. The birds learned the cats couldn’t get them and the cats that they couldn’t get the birds, so they’d sit and watch. Because the occasional storm would blow the feeder off the window, I tethered it with fishing line so I wouldn’t have to go downstairs, outside, dig around in snow—rinse and repeat.
It wasn’t the quantity or diversity of the birds that fascinated me, it was their personalities. House (or English) sparrows are bossy, I think we all know that. House finches are prettier, with their red heads and backsides. They’ll pick out a seed and carefully peel back the husk with their bill, swallowing the inner goods. Try doing that, human!
Chickadees, among my favorites along with tufted titmice and nuthatches, are pure scene stealers. Their tiny bodies pack a ton of personality. They are loud for their size—“chicka-dee, dee, dee!” Their stark black and white heads and round bodies are unmistakable. They flit fast and with intent. No mindless poking and pecking like some ground birds.
I’ve noticed a pattern, now that I have a house with a pole for feeders in the back yard. The house sparrows can dominate, so I make sure the feeders are full in the morning when the chickadees, juncos, titmice, and nuthatches are around. They are the early birds of winter. The sparrows show up later, drain the feeder, then leave. My wife refills toward dusk for the dinner crowd—returning chickadees and their pals, and the cardinal and her bright husband. (They seem to stick together outside of the breeding season. Not sure if that’s monogamy or proximity.) Mourning doves, a downy woodpecker pair, and numerous small juncos round out the regulars.
Occasionally there’s an odd bird among the crowd. A lone sparrow. Not a house sparrow, but an American tree sparrow, notable by its brown cap and spot in the middle of his (or her, they look the same) chest.
I’ve read that some species will flock together—chickadees and titmice with the occasional downy woodpecker. The chickadees are vocal and alert. The others can feed in peace knowing the chickadees will sound the alarm if there is a predator in the area. How the chickadees benefit, I’m not sure, but the others sure do. Maybe that’s why the sparrow hangs with them. But he (or she) is always alone.
There’s a Massachusetts Audubon sanctuary in Topsfield, Mass., where you might feel like you are in an Alfred Hitchcock movie until you realize the small birds mobbing you are looking for seeds. Bring sunflower seeds, and the birds will, literally, eat out of your hand.
The first time I saw others doing this, I was appalled. Wild things should be left wild and the idea of taming these birds seemed downright dangerous, sanctuary notwithstanding. But the first time a chickadee landed on my fingers, with its miniscule weight and sharp nails, I was sold. Now, if I forget the seed, I feel like an ungrateful guest.
It was cold during our latest visit, so I wore mittens. The chickadees hesitated to land. They’d fly by, hover, then take off, only to return and try again. They were used to bare hands. Eventually their desire for the seeds won them over, and they’d land, grab one, and fly off, their tiny wings buzzing. They, and the titmice, will fly to a slender branch, hold the seed with their feet, and peck it open. Titmice are very much a land-and-grab kind of bird. They don’t stick around.
Nuthatches are picky. They’ll sit on your hand and check seed after seed. They seem to be programmed to reject the first two and fly off with the third. Rather than eat the seed right away, they usually find a tree with crackly bark and jam the seed into a nook for later. All these birds fight for landing spots. It can get pretty raucous.
At one point, we spotted a brown tree sparrow, quiet and alone among the boisterous gray and black birds. We were on a boardwalk in the middle of a marsh. I hadn’t expected any birds, but they found us. The sparrow hung back, inching toward the seed we left on a railing, wanting to join the fray, but clearly of a different disposition. Not so forward, not so bold. By the time he gathered the courage to hop onto the deck rail, the others had snarfed down the seeds. We scattered more. We stepped back farther. This time his courage got him there in time. He picked up a seed, peeled it open, swallowed, and flew back into the brush.
At the next stop, on a different trail, again a tree sparrow joined the others. Same one? Are we feeding different sets of birds or are they just following us through the sanctuary? No way to tell.
These sparrows, like the one I see in my yard, appear perfectly content among these others. If it helps them find food, all the better. If they need companionship, they might find it here, but probably not.
They say birds of a feather flock together, but clearly that’s not always true. Many of us join groups for reasons other than personal preference. Maybe it’s to advance our careers that we join a union or trade group. Especially for LGBTQIs, we might seek social groups hoping to find kindred spirits, only to realize we don’t have anything in common except that letter in the quiltbag.
I am often that lone sparrow, watching the others squabble and laugh, not fitting in. But wanting to.
The downside of backyard bird feeders, though, is the endless buffet for birds of prey. Just now, a blue jay sounded the alarm. Everyone scattered as a large hawk flew through the yard. This time unsuccessful.
I’ll have to think about what lesson lies there.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a great site for information and they have some neat webcams.
Massachusetts Audubon Society. This is not affiliated with National Audubon (been around longer).
Mass Audubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary (The missing period is not a mistake. They’ve done away with Mass. in favor of Mass, to my editorial dismay.)