Thursday, December 14, 2006

On the Native Intelligence of Birds

All my life I have been a feeder of birds during the cold months. Living in upstate NY in the middle of fierce winters, as soon as the driveway was cleared after a snowstorm the next task would be to clear paths out to the various bird feeders both front and back, so that we could then go out and feed the birds for my Mom. She would remind us that the birds needed that food to keep up their body warmth and survive the cold temperatures, so we could never feel guilt-free in our nice warm house by the fire if we knew the bird feeders were empty. We had a big feeder in the back that was filled daily with a large coffee can full of food, while another can's worth was scattered on the ground for ground-feeding birds. In front was a thistle sock for the finches. And we went out every day, rain or shine, snowy or clear, and fed those birds.

Our parents taught us to respect birds, to recognize one breed from another by plumage and call, to take pleasure in their antics and songs, to recognize their nests in the wild and to respect the sanctity of the nest.

So it is only natural that we kids all still feed birds now that we are grown and in our seperate houses. One house that I lived in about ten years ago had a deep over-hang in the front where I hung a wooden porch swing, and put up several baskets of geraniums in front of the windows. Every year the same pair of doves would nest in one of the baskets. He spent his days in the mesquite tree six feet away as she sat the nest, and he would come in and relieve her when she went for food or water. I found it charming, albeit inconvenient, to see them return every spring to nest and I loved to climb up onto the couch and peer through the window into the nest to see the young birds after they were hatched. Once they fledged they would hang out nearby for a few days, and then right away Mom would be back on her nest with a new pair of eggs to brood over.

The house that we live in now has a very large window in the living room with a mesquite tree just outside, and we have a couple of feeders for small birds in the tree. We take great pleasure in seeing the house finches come in, and especially the pair of cardinals, which I consider the perfect, most regal wild bird. Seeing cardinals is a little gift from God in the middle of your day, something that makes you stop in your tracks and just be for a few moments while you absorb the beauty of what you are presented with.

While cardinals make me breathe a prayer of thanks, house finches just make you smile. They are very social little birds. House finches hang out in crowds and spend their days in the bushes chatting with each other. It might be the hedge of oleanders at the side of the yard, or possibly the Texas ranger shrubs at the front of the house, or the pyracanthus in front of the bedroom window where they like to eat the berries and where we keep a small suet feeder for them. When I was sick with recurring pneumonia two winters ago and confined to bed for days on end over the course of three months, I loved to see them there in the bushes, unaware that I was just on the other side of the windows and watching them with a smile. They are noisy little things and chirp constantly to each other, but as soon as they sense a human anywhere near they shut up all at once. It is like someone flips the birdsong switch to OFF - one moment they are all singing madly, the next moment is the deepest of silences.

There are the curved-bill thrashers with their distinctive 'whit-wheet!' or the cactus wrens who curiously inspect everything every day, checking out flower pots, the front windows, the porch furniture, cracks in the bark of the mesquite.

I also have a special place in my heart for the quail, and we spend all spring waiting to see them appear for the first time with their hatch trailing along behind them, so tiny that my parents call them bumblebees. We keep an anxious eye on the offspring during the summer, confirming a count of them each day, and mourning when we see one less than the previous day's count. In hot weather they will spend their days in the flowerbed under the bedroom windows, next to the soaker hose in the cool earth. They have a rich, bubbling song when they come in to feed that makes me think of slow bubbles rising in a pot of melted chocolate. Quail don't fly unless they have to, preferring to walk everywhere they go in little coveys made of several mated pairs. It is a joy to see them scurrying across the yard to feed in the afternoons or early mornings when we have just put out food for them.

We have a hummingbird that we call Speedy. Speedy has two fiercely defended bird feeders - one on the front window, and one about 4 feet away in the mesquite. No other hummers are allowed anywhere near, and she hangs out in the mesquite all day, getting into little hummer wars if another hummingbird has the audacity to approach. However, hummingbirds are not much afraid of humans and will come right up to my husband or myself when we are outside.

But I will come right out and say this, even though it may make you clutch your chest and gasp at the blasphemy of it: Mourning doves are stupid. They have the native intelligence of thugs, but beyond that, they are just plain stupid.

Consider this: Every afternoon around 3:30 I go out to feed the birds, filling up a large zip-lock bag with food, filling first the finch feeders and then tossing the remainder of the seed on the ground for the doves and quail. Doves are smart enough that they spend the afternoon waiting on the wires outside the house for me to come out and feed them. They are even smart enough that if I'm not home they will wait on the wires over the road like a line of lookouts for me to drive home, and then fly over to the house wires to wait once they see my car coming up the road. They do, I swear this is true. So they have grasped the fact that I am the one who feeds them every day, morning and afternoon, and that this is where to hang out to wait for the food. What they can't seem to grasp is that the person who feeds them does not then lurk behind the barrel cactus ready to leap out and catch them for a snack as soon as they get tucked into their meal. The ground is full of birds, I step out with a bag of birdfood and they all take off in a panic like I had just started taking pot shots at them. Hello! I'm the Food Lady! Not the Mistress of Death and Destruction!

While the doves are feeding and we are safely indoors once again where we can surely do them no harm, my husband and I must take care to not walk through the living room, or once again, they all take off at once like they are shot out of a cannon. Someone sneezes two miles away and WHOOSH! they all lift off the ground in one mass of fluttering wings and mad avian terror.

Ok, you say, they are wild creatures, they stay alive by avoiding learned threats. So I ask you, why can't they figure out the concept of the living room window? And why, if they are so frightened of us, do they constantly try to come in the house and join us? I'm not talking about a gentle tap and an, Oh, I'm sorry! I just ran into your window! Sorry to bother! No. They fling themselves at it headlong with as much speed and enthusiasm as they can muster. No other birds fly into the window. Doves do it in droves.

This is behaviour that my mother would refer to as Not Very Smart. And if you think about it, there is probably a great deal of inbreeding going on in the dove population. They really all do look a whole lot alike.

Our window looks as though we hired a painter to do a mural composed of little dust paintings of doves in flight, all over the glass. When the light is just right you see the impressions of every manner of bird posture. One would think they would learn after a while that the window is a solid object that causes them great pain when they come into contact with it at speed. One might think that there would be a form of collective learning, where they would say to each other, Whatever you do, don't fly into the window. Bob did it and he said it really hurts your head when you do that. One might assume that when one dove screams, Take off! Humans! that at least one other bird would pause to ask, Where? Oh, in the house? Well, I guess I won't fly that way then.

But no. Day after day, all day long doves like to fly at the window just as fast and as hard as they can to see if they can knock themselves out or break their necks. It is like teenagers and glue sniffing. I know this is self-destructive behaviour, but hell! Let's try it! It might be fun! I bet it makes you really, really dizzy.

And it is behaviour that can be especially startling to humans, as well. Picture being deep in a good mystery on the couch of an afternoon, all is peace and quiet, until BAM! BAM! BAM! Three doves suddenly hit the window with a loud report like a starter pistol going off just behind your head.

So I rest my case. Doves are stupid. Doves might even be masochistic, for all I know. Doves can give one quite a start, if they so choose.

Well, that's all I have to say about it. Time to go out and feed the birds.


Blogger AlisonH said...

You should have heard me nodding in memories of birdfeeding growing up, and then guffawing at the silly doves as I read! Okay, now, do you have any of those bright little suction-cup ornaments on the windows like some people do to announce to the bird world that there's something there they don't want to get too close to? They might at least fear that it's going to swoop over sideways at them if they fly into the window.

11:15 AM  

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