Sunday, October 23, 2011

Where Have the Birds Gone?

October is a decision month for me. This is when I decide, quietly, whether or not I'm going to feed the birds this winter. When I was growing up, we fed the birds throughout the worst winter months but never in the summer, since we felt they had plenty of food in the natural world. So, October and November were a time of getting the bird feeders ready and choosing the appropriate bird seed. But with the change in the species frequenting our backyard, I no longer feel the same way about feeding the winter birds.

I don't know if this is part of global warming, but the species we now see around our house have changed dramatically in the last couple of years. We've had an influx of flocks and flocks of sparrows. They're everywhere. When I walk in the early morning, they flutter up from the ground and hide in hedges until I pass, chirping in annoyance until I'm well beyond their feeding ground. Unlike most other birds in this area, they don't quiet down when humans approach; instead, they get louder and louder, as though warning us off.

When I look out the window in the late afternoon I no longer see the pairs of cardinals that have lived on this stretch of our street for years, nor the occasional junco or chickadee or gold finch. I haven't even heard the mocking bird recently, and I haven't seen a cowbird in years (I don't actually miss that one, considering its behavior). I don't look for barn swallows, since there aren't any real barns around here anymore either, and I miss their distinctive flight pattern and forked tails.

My backyard now consists of hundreds of sparrows swooping and diving, forking and rejoining, rising as a single mass, scattering and reforming; a blue jay that insists on pecking at the door frame on the back porch; and a lot of crows that make as much noise as they want, thank you very much. Last weekend a flock of turkeys wandered down a nearby side street, and have since crossed several streets and found their way to the front yard of an old estate on the water, where a small dog chases them.

Last winter we had a flock of mallards march stately across the frozen snow to our back terrace to eat all the seed we had put out for the regular winter visitors. They drove off all the other birds and filled the terrace. Even when I went out to drive them off, they didn't go far. Watching them approach inexorably, over snow drifts and snow piles, slow step by slow step, in a straggling line, was the most disappointing part of the winter. I don't want them back again this year.

I miss the birds of color and, I think, independence and grace and variety. The cardinals were a bit skittish of people and hid among the bushes, but their color and thoughtful movements were a delight. The chickadees, juncos, and others came and went and all shared their space on the terrace. With the influx of mallards and sparrows, the quieter, more colorful pairs are gone, driven away by both other species and climate.

With the onset of winter I am becoming reconciled to the permanent loss of the more colorful birds and the new residency of the sparrows. I probably won't feed them, since that will only encourage them to stay, and will certainly attract the ducks. But I am thinking of planting a garden next summer just to attract the kinds of birds I have come to miss. I have all winter to plan.

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