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Backyard Birding in Washington DC

February 3, 2020
Cardinal

Cardinal

I once had a mini mental breakdown when a domesticated parrot landed on my shoulder to hang out with me. I cried a little — in that petrified way a person does when they think a modern-day dinosaur might puncture their carotid artery.

My bird terror track record is long. I’ve felt the menace of peacocks, the dive-bombing of hummingbirds and the crazy-eyed taunting of chickens. Irate geese have pooped savagely in my direction. A lifetime of anticipating bird assaults means that I can spot a hawk on a roofline from half a mile away.

So I surprised myself a few years ago when I decided to get a bird feeder that sticks to the second-floor window of my house.

The quiet rabble

The quiet rabble

The starlings might have been the reason. I first noticed them on the National Mall. Their flock was massive and their chatter mesmerizing. Just to be clear, I don’t anticipate a flock attacking me, only individual birds with vendettas. The flock would lift up from behind a construction fence, roll through the air and return to the ground like a thousand fighter pilots landing on an aircraft carrier at once. Before long, I noticed another flock of starlings roiling around tall buildings in Southwest DC at dusk. Their dividing dives and re-congregations at sunset were beautiful.

Blue Jay Juvenile - First day with the new wings

Blue Jay Juvenile – First day with the new wings

Understanding how to make the most of the suction-cupped-to-the-window bird feeder was a challenge. At first, I used the wrong kind of food and too much of it. That last mistake encouraged lone bird pugilists to fight viciously with others at the feeder. It was disturbing to watch. Also, because I opened a window repeatedly (and incorrectly) to fill the feeder, I broke something in the window track. After hiding the feeder and tweezing all the seed casings from the window track so an all-knowing window technician wouldn’t give me the “You’re an Idiot, Lady” lecture and look, I paid to get the window fixed.

Worse, my initial bird feeder placement was easy for the squirrels to access. I didn’t realize that until I came face to second-floor-face with one of the critters. My yelling caused the squirrel to leap poorly. People say time lenses during great stress. Like with birds, I have a history with squirrels. I went through a range of lensed emotions (anger, shock, regret, hope) as I watched that spread-squirrelled impact with the ground. I felt bad for almost causing a mammalian death and most-likely causing injury. Unlike bird ancestors in the Mesozoic era, squirrel kin were tiny.

Cooper Hawk

Cooper Hawk

The feeder was moved. I began to fill it just once every week or two on a schedule that I hoped identified the feeder as a food source, but not as the only food source. I sorted out what kind of birdseed to get so as not to cause seed casing chaos in my backyard and also so I was providing seed that was the most appropriate. I didn’t expect to see anything in particular where type of bird was concerned, but I was delighted about the house finches and purple finches who arrived. I hadn’t even known such birds lived in DC!

Then one day while filling the feeder with seed, I forgot to press the feeder’s suction cups to the window pane. When I (carefully) put the window back in place, the feeder crashed to the ground. Unlike the nefarious squirrel, the feeder broke into many pieces. Birdseed coated the backyard. Many squirrels were made happy that day. I was not.

For a month, I contemplated what to do. The world was topsy-turvy. I was supposed to be afraid of birds. Perhaps the destruction of the feeder was a sign that I should give up this folly and get a cat. I love cats. All cats. Even the mean ones. But I missed the birds. I had seen so many different types of birds because of the feeder — red-winged blackbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, house sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, doves, northern mockingbirds and more.

Mockingbird mocks me

Mockingbird mocks me

I got another bird feeder. Happy birds barely paused their swooping by. After too many missed pictures, I reset my camera to multi-shot.

I also confirmed that blue jays are jerks. I mean, pretty jerks, but still jerks. I knew that the blue jays and the cardinals always seem to show up around the same time in the backyard, but it was a while before I came to understand that if there is one blue jay, there are probably five more nearby. And if you’re a cooper hawk, all six of those blue jays are going to dive bomb you until you move along. Maybe the jerkiness makes sense in bird world (nests, eggs, general principle), but the harassment is a gripping spectacle for the humans who notice it.

Cooper Hawk Versus Four Blue Jays

Cooper Hawk Versus Four Blue Jays

I was seeing so much about birds. Not just how they look but also their songs and their chirping plus which ones hop and which ones fly. In the summer, when I watered the flower beds, I could hear the birds start up their calls to each other about how the sporadic food spot was definitely a watering hole today. I was so pleased that the feeder brought the birds and encouraged them to hang around sprinkling their little packets of bird poo magic on my backyard and giving rise to the occasional flower I didn’t plant.

Uh-oh. Starlings.

Uh-oh. Starlings.

Everything was lovely until the starling flock discovered my feeder. The birds I thought were so beautiful roiling over tall Southwest DC buildings had settled into the neighborhood a few streets away. Specifically, the starlings made homes of three large streetside trees. Every night, starlings chattered loudly and incessantly while coating several cars with bird poo and no flower potential. The amount of excreta was a wonder to behold. I had seen it myself from slightly afar while not looking directly overhead.

The neighborhood was on a tear about the starling invasion. I couldn’t let the human world know I had a bird feeder. I couldn’t let the starlings feed at the feeder. Not only would they decimate the contents, but their swarm and noise would be obvious to all. If I didn’t stop the starlings, what the neighbors would do to me would make a six blue jay assault on a cooper hawk look like a friendly game of tag.

House Finch Juvenile

House Finch Juvenile

I’m not embarrassed to say that I took immediate crazy lady action. I threw things at the bird feeder window. I ran toward it. I jumped onto the couch and banged against the panes. Loudly, I exulted in the fleeing of the starlings. I learned something else about starlings — they frighten easily and are reluctant to return to my feeder.

Now, every few weeks when the starlings return I only have to repeat my gesticulating charge.

Doves

Doves

Eternal vigilance is the price of feeding the birds, who it turns out I do like. I even appear to have grown protective of those birds without brute force on their side. I just need a bit of double-paned, see-through glass separating me from those doing the seed-eating equivalent of pecking at a carotid artery.

For a good picture-based overview of birds in DC, check out “Common Birds of NE Washington, DC” on iNaturalist.org.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 12, 2020 1:58 pm

    This is great, and has so much of your voice in it, Andrea! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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