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 …

BIRDS. A LOT OF BIRDS – Marilyn Armstrong

I actually displayed a good deal of self-control. I avoided the camera and the birds almost all day, but I was up really early so by two in the afternoon, I needed to point a lens at the birds. I was sure I’d seen a robin. Of course I know it’s a month too early for robins, but there was a flash of red on what looked like a bird’s tummy … so …

It wasn’t a robin. It was a red finch. He came with his own lady finch today.

I thought there was a squirrel waiting in the woods but it turned out to be a big Mourning Dove. My eyes are not good on long distances, so I saw big, brown, squishy creature sitting on a tree limb. It had to be a squirrel.

The same mourning dove, again
Mourning Dove

It wasn’t. Mourning Dove. Big, soft, brown. On a tree limb. Far enough away that I couldn’t clearly see him, but I aimed the camera. It saw him. Or her. Is there a difference between the girls and the boys?

Chickadee in flight, Nuthatch on the feeder

I ordered some of the upgraded birdseed today. See if I can get some new faces around the feeder. Always the same few dozen chickadees, warblers, finches, and nuthatches.

It’s the same Red-bellied Woodpecker. Still eating

And three or four woodpeckers. And Juncos. We need some more action around here!

There really was something different on the feeder, but my battery went dead. It had been sending me little flashing orange reminders for a while, but I didn’t take the hint, so by the time I changed the battery, whatever had been there was gone.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker
Red-Bellied Nuthatch. It’s those splotchy brownish-red patches that are the “red belly” part of the bird.

I took some pictures. I couldn’t help myself.

BIRDS GETTING CUTER – Marilyn Armstrong

I looked out the back door and finally — a Cardinal! I’ve been waiting for him to show up. He used to be a regular in my hedge every winter and finally, there he was sitting on the railing.

Chickadees

He wasn’t fully convinced about the whole feeder arrangement and was eying it up. I was eying him up while quietly opening my camera.

It wouldn’t focus. No matter what I did.

Nuthatch on the rail

I finally realized I’d turned off the little clicker on the lens for AutoFocus. I wish they wouldn’t put little tiny buttons on the lens where you can accidentally move them and not even know you did it. After I got it set to focus, I also realized it was set to the wrong setting. I probably moved the ring when I put the camera away.

I put it back where it belonged … which is when I realized the flashing red symbol in my viewfinder was my camera letting me know the battery was about to die.

Cute little Titmouse

By the time I got the new battery inserted, the Cardinal had long since done whatever he was planning to do and flown away. I could have taken a picture of where he had previously been, but I didn’t.

Tufted Titmouse in cute mode

I did take a few pictures. Nothing unusual. In fact, you could say this was a lineup of “the usual suspects.”

Hungry little birdies

One of the better parts of taking so many bird pictures is that these days, I can wait until they do something cute. I know the birds will be back and if I don’t take pictures today, I will find something to shoot tomorrow.

Same Nuthatch, ready for a meal

And, as the weather gets colder, I figure we’ll have a few more suspects lining up. You think?

ARE WE THE ONLY BIRD FEEDERS IN TOWN? – Marilyn Armstrong

When Owen came by earlier to replace the flap on the doggy door, he said it was like Hitchcock’s “The Birds” all over again.”

Two warblers in a row

“You’ve got flocks of birds everywhere, did you know that? On your roof, in the trees, in the driveway. Dozens of them.”

Now three warblers …

“Look out back,” I said. There was a big Hairy Woodpecker surrounded by Warblers, Chickadees, a few Tufted Titmouses and the odd Junco. In the trees and along the railing, there were at least a dozen more birds, all waiting for their turn at the feeder. Up in the branches, more birds. A lot of them dive in, grab a seed, and fly off.

“I didn’t know,” said Owen, “That woodpeckers eat seeds. I thought they only ate insects.”

“In this weather,” I pointed out, “They will eat pretty much anything. Besides, there isn’t much insect life in the winter, so I expect they eat what they can when the bugs are dead. ”

Warblers and Woodpecker

It occurred to me for the first time that maybe no one else in the area has a feeder and we are the only free buffet in town. We certainly have a hoard of birds and a huge variety. At least three or four kinds of warblers and no, I still can’t tell one from the other. At least three kinds of woodpeckers, but the big guy doesn’t come to the feeder. The Pileated Woodpecker is, despite his size, quite a shy guy.

Chickadee and Woodpecker (a warbler half hidden by the feeder)

If we really are the only food bank in town, no wonder we have so many birds! The warblers come by the flock. The Juncos come in pairs. The woodpeckers are always solitary, but you can tell the boys from the girls by the red patch on the back of the head. In the course of the day, various kinds of birds take over the feeder. It’s a big feeder and you can fit quite a few birds on it at a time.

From top to bottom

I wonder who is going to fly out of the woods as the weather gets colder and snowier. So far, it has been cold, but whenever they promise snow, it warms up just enough. Instead, we have rain.

I’m good with that. Sometimes, we don’t any snow until the end of January or February. Of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t get snow, only that we get a lot of snow very quickly!

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.

BIRDS OF MY WEEK – Marilyn Armstrong

Nope, not part of a challenge. It’s merely that I have so many pictures of birds taken this week, I figure I ought to share them.

I have a new bird book. I broke my vow and ordered the long lens for my Olympus OMD — which cost more than the camera cost — but it’s the only game in town and I really need to use the camera that I can focus.

I don’t see a lot of squirrels in the feeder, but by the volume of disappearing food, I’m betting they get there, eat a lot, and disappear. Probably to take a long nap in a tall tree.

Can’t forget the squirrels!
Goldfinch waiting for his pals

In the course of this week, the various flocks of Goldfinch (Magnolia, American, et al) have totally taken over the feeder. They fly around it in flocks. Somehow, a few Tufted Titmouses, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and various woodpeckers drop by, but mostly … lots and lots of Goldfinch.

One mourning dove
A couple of birds. Face forward, please. I can’t tell what you are from your tail feathers!

Oh, and about the Juncos. I have a few that are so fat, I’m surprised they can still fly.

My favorite Chickadee
Cutest house finch

Today, the feeder was pretty close to empty. My son has other stuff going on and I didn’t want to bother him, so I figured “How long can it take to fill a bird feeder?” Owen does it in two minutes.

Four Goldfinches (one is mostly behind the feeder)
Still flying, they grab a seed and go for the trees!

But you see, he’s well over six feet tall and I am just barely hitting five feet. I couldn’t reach the feeder. I dragged out something to stand on, but it was too tall and I was afraid I’d ruin my future by falling off the deck head first, so finally, I turned it sideways and stood crookedly on its legs. Not very comfortable — or steady.

A Red-Bellied Woodpecker
A lonely Nuthatch

And it turns out that this bird feeder holds five pounds of food. Maybe more. It’s a lot of food. A lot more food than you think. Like … tubs of it. Maybe that’s why the Juncos are so fat? Also, some of the Goldfinch look pretty well-rounded too.

The gallant Tufted Titmouse

Eventually, they will all just sit on my deck waiting for the goodies. Unable to fly. Just sitting like little, feathered cupcakes.

I think even the squirrels are bloated.

Is it possible that I am over-feeding my wild creatures?

And finally, just so you don’t think I’m delusional, this is a picture of my Pileated Woodpecker. It’s blurry, but I think it’s definitely that big woodpecker. I’m hoping one day, he’ll drop by and hang around long enough for me to take a picture that has … you know … edges.

No matter what they say on television, you cannot take a tiny piece of a picture, blow it up, and get a nice clear image. It doesn’t work.

THE WEEKLY SMILE: SO MANY BIRDS – Marilyn Armstrong

A WEEKLY SMILE – Enjoying the Birds

Every day there’s a new one I haven’t seen before, or finally, I manage to get a picture of a bird I’ve never photographed before. One of those that has always gotten away.

I’m getting a real kick out of my bird feeders. I used up the small bag of seeds I’d bought in the grocery store and started using the “better quality” seed I’d ordered on Amazon. I didn’t realize there was any significant difference, but there must be.

Red Finch – freed by pet store owners when they were no longer allowed to sell the wild finches, these have taken up residence all over the country … including New England.

Garry and I changed the seeds yesterday. We dumped the leftover seeds from the cage into the flat feeder. Meanwhile, a lot of seeds fell over the railing onto the ground below.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker

It will be interesting to see what grows from all those seeds because the seeds in birdseed are “live,” which is to say … they can grow.


This is probably a female Downy Woodpecker. They are essentially identical to the Hairy Woodpecker, but smaller. Female, because she has no splash of red on her head. The white back pretty much guarantees it is one of those two woodpeckers and it’s medium size suggests Downy.

And one in flight …

When we climbed out of bed into the kitchen this morning, there was a swarm of birds out there. Not the usual collection of Chickadees, but … well. I had to take out the bird book because there were birds I’d never seen before. I still haven’t identified all of them. A bunch of them fall into the category described by my “Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds” as “Confusing Fall Warblers.”

Some of them could be Juvenal, though it’s late in the year for even nearly full-grown babies. Regardless, all of them look a lot alike. Brown, flecked with white. Bigger than the Chickadee and Titmouse crew, but smaller than the woodpeckers.

The brown one looks like a Wood Thrush, but it could be something else including one of the many brown warblers, all of which (especially amongst the females) look similar. I’m betting on Wood Thrush (but could be a winter feathered Bobolink). Rather long and leggy. The other one is probably a White-Breasted Nuthatch.
Could be a Starling or the winter feathers of a Bobolink. Or something else?
A lady Red Finch and a White-breasted Nuthatch

Then there are warblers. Warblers — there are at least 20 different types living in the woods — resemble each other. There are the yellow ones, the green ones, the white with gray or black ones. They are the same size, pretty much. A big section of the bird book is spent trying to help you figure out which one is which. In the end, you may never know exactly which warbler you’ve seen. And maybe it’s a wren.

Take your best guess. Pretty sure the one flapping is a Nuthatch and the other is one of those small brown birds. And there are an awful lot of small brown birds.

The only way I can tell them apart is by whether or not there are patches or bars of white on wings or tail (assuming I can see the wings or tail which depends on their position on the feeder). Mostly, the shape of the beak is my best indicator of what type of bird it is. The long pointy-beaked birds have a very different purpose from the rounded, not-pointed blunt beaked birds.


A Chickadee and a Tufted-Titmouse, and a downy woodpecker — our most frequent visitors


The good news is that when I can get a picture, I can take my time pawing through the book. Also, even if I don’t get a photograph, I can tell the difference in the size of the birds. There was a near-war going on as the day progressed with big birds knocking the small birds out of the way, then the small birds coming back in groups to get the big guys to move. I have two feeders. The flat one is designed for the bigger birds, but don’t tell the big birds. For one reason or another (maybe the rainy weather?), all the birds like the cage with the seeds and a roof that probably keeps them dry.

Still some birds like the flat feeder because they can really get into it.

I have only seen a single squirrel so far. I think there are so many acorns in the oak woods, they really don’t need the seeds. This was a super acorn year. About every three years, we get super huge acorns, big enough to dent the car when they hit and the squirrels get really fat. A couple of our dogs used to love eating acorns and they got fat, too. Apparently, dogs can eat and absorb acorns.

To be fair, some of the dogs I’ve owned can and will eat pretty much anything that doesn’t eat them first.

The easiest birds to identify are the woodpeckers. They have pointy beaks, are bigger than the other birds and they come in striking patterns. I’ve seen, but been unable to photograph a real redheaded woodpecker. He is always there until I get the camera point the right way, at which point he vanishes. I did see a new one today — and it was either a female Downy or Hairy OR a Red-Cockaded woodpecker.

I did get some pictures so you can take your best guess. They all very similar and all live in the same environment, namely — our woods.

With the appalling news on the environment and looking at all the things I need to do to fix my house, birds are the bright spot. Watching them flutter around and enjoy the seed makes me happy. I can’t do much to fix the world, but maybe I can make my little woods and its birds happy and healthy.