GUEST AUTHOR: KARIN LAINE McMILLEN – THE BIRDFEEDER OPERA

I really related to this story! And I thought you might enjoy it too. Oh, the cleverness in the animal kingdom. We think we are so smart but sometimes, I really wonder.

Marilyn Armstrong


The Birdfeeder Opera – by Karin Laine McMillen

I lived at home during my first year of graduate school saving money by commutable proximity to the University of Iowa. It was an interesting experience. The redefinition of my relationship with my parents was a little bumpy.

I poured ice cold water on my mother in the shower one day, no doubt trying to recapture some of the fun dorm life with my college mates. Mom was not amused. My dad found out where my sometimes boyfriend lived and felt it was ok to stand outside his window yelling “Karin I know you are in there.”

But once we had our “come to Jesus” on that topic things went a little better. I also think it was that moment when I grew up and decided I should get a job and my own apartment in Iowa City.

I digress. This is really the story of animal life and the amusement that often comes from human interaction, underestimation of the cleverness of wild creatures, and their symbiosis with our larger world.

Our beautiful home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa had been a run-down, dark, very boxy colonial when my parents purchased it. By the time my mother and father were done with it, a two-year process, it was a light, modern, flow-through home with all the amenities required for luxurious family living with three daughters.

It was situated in the woods atop a large bucolic gully. This was fantastic as it meant that my dad had no lawn to mow. My mom, being an opportunistic feminist, has never pumped her own gas, let alone operated any type of lawn machinery. She uses her feminist views to simultaneously sit atop a “little girl on a pedestal” throne whilst insisting that just because she is a woman, she shouldn’t have to do all the traditionally female tasks.

In short, she made my dad a slave to her every whim, including attempting to orchestrate the nature outside for her viewing pleasure.

My parents are both very good designers.

In our home, where solid walls used to be, a row of floor to ceiling glass doors and windows lined the entire rear of the home, offering panoramic views. A patio was constructed by my dad and my mother purchased and ordered the placing of multiple bird feeders for her viewing pleasure of year-round bird frolicking. Her favorite bird feeder was an oblong, cyclonic, ceramic, cyan, Scandinavian, seed-filled feeder with a lid at the top and holes and perching sticks at the bottom. In order to fill it, the douli-shaped lid slid on the two hanging ropes and was supported by the friction of the small ceramic holes against the rough wool twine.

In winter especially, my mother made it her mission to keep this particular feeder full. She enjoyed watching the birds flutter around it as much as she enjoyed ordering my father to fill it. During this year at home, when the Iowa winter was in full bloom, the barking began.

“Larry, did you buy bird seed for the Scandinavian feeder?” (Because everything is more important and better when it is labeled “Scandinavian”.)

Before the vowel of the known answer came back “no,” my mom was already on him.

“You go to Menards every day, why can’t you remember to buy my bird seed! And get the kind that has such and such, blah, blah, blah and this and that. NOT the kind that you got last time! I like the kind that is multicolored so that when it falls on the ground it is pretty. “Laaaarrry, are you listening to me????!!!!”

“Yes, Diane!” would come back just as the door to the garage slammed. I listened to this with detached amusement for several weeks. So I barely noticed when the tune stayed the same — but the lyrics changed. The new chorus was “Larry, did you fill the feeder? It’s empty again! I swear you didn’t do it!”

This was followed by the drumbeat of slamming pots and pans and the response “Diane, I filled it! I’m halfway through that bag”.

“I don’t believe you! Why is it always empty? I haven’t seen any birds all winter! You’re lying to me!!!!”

“Diane, why would I lie to you? Do you want to see the bag?”

“Don’t you bring that dirty bag in here!”

“Do you want to watch me fill it?” He would grumble unintelligibly while traipsing out in the subzero temperatures with said bag.

Not a raccoon, but close enough!

This went on intermittently in the early winter weeks and was thankfully interrupted with the new barking orders in preparation for the Scandinavian Advent and Scandinavian Christmas celebrations. But in early January, I heard the familiar call and response continue. As daddy’s little girl, I wanted to defend my dad. But in truth, I knew that he often lied to my mom and I had other things to think about.

Until one morning on my way to class …

As I walked towards our mudroom to retrieve my shoes, coat, and purse, my peripheral vision caught a large, darkish blob moving on the patio. It was sufficiently disruptive to my brain that I froze. Instinctively I knew it was an animal and any sudden movement could render the thing gone before I could ascertain what it was. I slowly turned and was able to fully observe a delightful little comedy.

Raccoon (Procyon lotor) raiding bird feeder at 8 PM in the brush country of south Texas, October. (Wild individual in wild setting.)

Precariously hanging with the use of two back paws from a tiny single branch was the fattest raccoon I have ever seen. He (don’t ask me how I know it was a he; I’ve had far too much contact with raccoons at summer camp and knowledge I wish I didn’t have) had one front paw in his mouth and one front paw inside THE bird feeder. He was scooping out and eating the multi-colored feast as fast as he could swallow.

I thought to myself, “Oh, that is funny. Dad didn’t put the top back on the bird feeder.”

I watched Mr. Fat Racoon steal the feed as the little birds on surrounding branches stared unblinkingly for the few and far between scraps which fell to the ground through the little bottom holes. I glanced at my watch and debated if I should continue to observe the scene and risk being late to class.

I even, briefly, thought of opening the door and chasing the raccoon away so the birds could have their food. But my previous encounters with raccoons made me think twice about that foolish notion. I’m not sure why I didn’t just bang on the window which would probably have scared him away, but I think it was the curious and mischievous nature that I share with the raccoon which made me continue to observe, amused and statuesque.

When the little paw could be seen attempting to find more feed from the open holes at the bottom of the feeder, the raccoon put both front paws to his mouth, licked each digit hungrily and then did something I didn’t expect.

With his two hands — sans opposable thumbs — he held onto the opposite sides of the lid and slid it down to its rightful place atop the feeder, adjusting it until it was even. He looked at his work, nodded to himself and climbed up the tiny branch which had bent 180 degrees from his weight. He then proceeded to climb down the tree trunk and sauntered through the brush displaying his hindquarters to me like a woman comfortable with her hips.

When I next heard the “Larry, did you fill the bird feeder?” opera, I smiled to myself, shook my head and envisioned that animal disappearing into our woods. It was several decades, and long after that house was sold before I told the tale one night at dinner …

MORE ABOUT THE WOODPECKERS – Marilyn Armstrong

The birds haven’t been very active today. It’s cold, so they fly in, grab a bite, and fly back to wherever they make their home. My son came over to refill their feeders because they ate a lot yesterday.

The big birds were out, especially the woodpeckers.

They are hefty eaters. It takes them a while to settle down, but once they get a good grip on the feeder, they just keep eating until they are finished. The rest of the birds mostly wait. Not all, but most.

A pair of woodpeckers

I had a pair — boy and girl — of Downy or Hairy Woodpeckers. I think they were Downy Woodpeckers, but both kinds of woodpecker look very much alike.

More woodpeckers!
Pair of peckers

It’s the beak length that’s the main difference and since they usually have it stuck inside the feeder, it’s not easy to figure out which is which. Whatever they are,  they are probably a mated pair.

The brightest bird of them all!
The Cardinal and the Tufted Titmouse on the flat feeder

I took a lot of pictures of these two because it was the first time I’ve had both on the feeder at the same time. I found it kind of thrilling.

Departing woodpecker (I think) and a nuthatch
And yesterday’s Ladderback with the bright red head

This proves I don’t have a very exciting life. I get really excited by birds and any other kind of wildlife.

MORE ICY WEATHER BIRDS – Marilyn Armstrong

I took a lot of pictures yesterday, so I’ve got a few more to show you today. This is just as well because I feel totally non-creative at the moment. Part of it is simply that I don’t feel well.

The clunk I took on the head a couple of days ago didn’t help a lot either, but to be fair, I was pretty brain-dead before that too.

A couple of things are wearing me down. Politics is clearly one. Like a lot of liberals — and other fair-minded people — the ugliness of our political situation is dispiriting and depressing. Whatever humor I felt about it at the beginning has long disappeared. Now it’s just grim and hateful. It has made a lot of people a lot grumpier than they were.

It’s like living under a black cloud that just follows you around and keeps raining. Which either means we are rain gods or we are drawn by a famous (and I should add, dead) illustrator.

So, back to the birds. They are bright, non-political, and all they want is some seed.

I can do that.

More of the bright red bird
Cardinal and his Junco pal

Yesterday, the Patriots won a hotly contested game against the chiefs. It was one of the games where even those of us who aren’t super football fans can only say “wow.”

Cardinal in the cold
On a frozen Monday

All the other news is so demoralizing and sad, it’s hard to stay excited. Especially since with so many TSA agents calling in sick because the government doesn’t think they should pay them for their work, you have to wonder how people are going to get to the game.

The bitterly frigid weather hasn’t helped either.

Well-chilled Junco

From here to Atlanta is more than 1000 miles. Driving, that’s about 86 gallons of gasoline and at least two, maybe three days at the wheel.

A chilly Nuthatch

By train, that’s 24 hours.

Part of a Nuthatch and a Cardinal

Although there remain some flights available, the prices are ridiculous. Lucky we weren’t planning to go anyway, isn’t it?

SATURDAY BIRDS – Marilyn Armstrong

I cannot help myself. There are birds, there is a camera, there are windows.

Incoming warbler and Hairy Woodpecker

And, I filled the feeder yesterday and I was curious to see if the birds sense that I had downgraded the mix from ultra super fancy to “value feeder.”

Painting of a Hairy Woodpecker
Hello, fans! I’m a warbler. Want to guess which warbler?

Answer? Not so you’d notice. I was actually at the window taking pictures of pocket watches and realized I was going to have to hold the watch and shoot with the other hand because the only spare surface near the window was now outside, my having dragged it there yesterday in my short but womanly attempt to get the bird feeder down to a level at which I could fill it.

Big bird, little birds
Delicious seeds!

I was so exhausted by the time I finished filling the feeder, I didn’t have the strength of character to drag the small table back inside. Also, it was raining, so it isn’t coming in until it dries off — whenever that might be.

The good side of a Hairy Woodpecker
A warbler and a woodpecker. Note the size difference!

And as I was putting away The Good Camera, I realized “Ooh, look, there’s a Hairy Woodpecker.” I’m pretty sure it is a Hairy Woodpecker because he seems to have a longer beak.

Looking up?
One Chickadee and two Warblers

If you weren’t clear on the size difference between the usual feeders at the unending trough, seeing the woodpeckers and warblers together on the feeder makes it really clear.

I got one with a warbler flying in for a quick nibble. Special!

Drawing – One Woodpecker

Until the woodpeckers stand next to each other, the best I can do it guess which is which. The only difference between a Hairy and a Downy is their overall size and beak length. A big Downy and a small Hairy look exactly the same. I’m not sure the difference isn’t some kind of internal birding joke.

I have decided the birds think our feeders are a trap. Because they up and fly off even just seeing me through the doors.

Three (the third is in the back) little birds

If they really think it’s a trap, they should eat less. They are definitely plump and perfect for stuffing. With a sprig of parsley.

I took pictures. It’s what I do.

SPEEDY ALKA SELTZER – Marilyn Armstrong

RAPID. JUST ONE LETTER CHANGE AND IT’S RABID. 


When I think of speedy, I do not think of me. Or Garry. Or anyone I know these days. As the years have advanced, we have slowed. Whereas we used to walk fast and even sometimes (gasp) run, now we stroll. Or if you are me, stagger and weave.

But Alka Seltzer was speedy. Drink it and ignore those laughing bubbles and voilà, your stomach troubles were gone for good and all.

In my world, speedy is mostly Duke, the dog who leaps fences. He’s gaining weight, so I’m wondering how big he’ll need to be to make him stop jumping. He’s something to ponder, isn’t he?

Remember: RAPID is one short letter away from RABID. Get those rabies shots on time! Especially if your dog likes to hang out in the woods with the wild things.

CRAWLERS AND FLYERS – A FUN PHOTO CHALLENGE

Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Crawling or Flying

They crawled all over the house, the grounds, and consumed every leaf from every hardwood tree in the woods. They stripped apple trees and sassafras trees to bare branches and left a forest of naked trees in their wake.

Bare oaks are really covered with gypsy moth caterpillars
Bare oaks are actually covered with gypsy moth caterpillars

And they will be back this year. They are here already, just sleeping. Why can’t we be birds and fly away … away … away …

72-Robin-052714_030

72-Heron in Flight 1 HP
Heron taking flight

72-feed-birds-swans-mar-030816_042

Osprey returning home to the aerie
Osprey returning home to the aerie

cee's fun foto chall

BIRDS: A PHOTO A WEEK CHALLENGE

A Photo a Week Challenge: Birds

72-feed-birds-swans-mar-030816_050

72-Great-Blue-HERON_035

We have some wonderful bird life around here. Winter and summer, we have waterfowl in abundance, garden and song birds, woodpeckers, hummingbirds.72-Geese_19

96-SwansPost-NK_32

I can’t always catch them in a photograph. Some move too fast. Others, I hear but never quite see. Those that graciously move slowly or stand still for me … they make it into my files.

72-Mr. Goose _00

72-Cardinal-II_26

carolina wren

75-DucksInARow-HP-1

November ducks Mallards dam blackstone

72-swans-mar-030816_014