I knew I had become a bona fide geek last weekend, when my to-do list included “make bird feeders.”
There I was on a perfectly lovely Sunday afternoon – a warm winter window in which normal people were luxuriating – clutching a 16-inch-long chunk of birch as thick as my arm, a cordless drill and a set of wood bits. And I was happy.
My plan – suggested by a birding book with which I’ve spent entirely too much time – was to drill holes for a suet-like mixture, attach perches fashioned from wood dowels, stuff the holes and then suspend the whole shebang from a branch with a length of old rope.
This I did, and it was quickly apparent that the birds approved of both the rustic feeder and the faux suet, a mixture of peanut butter, shortening and cornmeal.
I was especially happy to see the woodpeckers and flickers, who rank among my feathered favorites. The black-and-white wings and red nape of a male downy woodpecker first caught my eye years ago, when I saw him scooting up a tree trunk. I was speechless some months later at what appeared to be a giant mutant, not realizing it was a hairy woodpecker, the downy’s larger lookalike.
Red-shafted northern flickers, too, are common in the Rocky Mountain foothills, distinctive for their boldly speckled breast, black necklace and, in males, crimson cheek blaze. It’s easy to spot a flicker in flight because of its conspicuous white rump, and the bird’s piercing call is a kind of lovely heartbreak.
I know, I know: I sound like a bird nerd. I wasn’t always like this. I used to have a life. Granted, it was never what you would call glamorous – it’s tough to be a bon vivant when your biological clock hits “snooze” at 9 p.m. – but I could be cajoled into an occasional night on the town or happy hour with the girls.
In recent years, though, my homebody tendencies have overcome any inclination to be somewhere else. Perhaps it’s the considerable sweat equity I’ve invested in my old house, which after 17 years feels as much a part of me as I am of it. Perhaps I’ve simply reached the age at which many of us prefer to be farther from the madding crowd and nearer to quiet comforts: the cat curled in the lap, the morning cup of coffee that takes the chill from groggy fingers.
I know I’ve become attached to my little piece of wild paradise, a backyard that is home to an assortment of winged and four-footed callers. Not long after I began feeding the birds nearly two decades ago, I bought a field guide that now sports dog-eared pages documenting my visitors: chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, grackles, starlings, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, finches, pine siskens.
Some of the birds would come without encouragement (my cedar-fenced yard is graced with fruit-producing shrubs, blue spruce, limber pine and white fir) but I’ve come to understand how the offerings of seed, suet and water nourish me, as well.
The twice-daily ritual – stocking and hanging the feeders at daybreak, bringing them in at dusk to thwart the raccoons – is a tether to the natural world. Few tonics to modern human life – that incessant rush to meet endless professional and personal obligations – are more effective than fulfilling this simpler, sweeter responsibility to the animal life around us.
I know the birds are waiting for me when I crawl into consciousness each dawn. The quarrelsome jays (pinyon, blue, Steller’s) are gathering near the platform feeders to launch themselves at the peanuts, and the tiniest of my visitors – a flock of bush tits – are preparing to swarm the suet. They come some mornings in such numbers that the wire cage disappears beneath their gray, gregarious weight.
I watch them from the warmth indoors, sipping coffee with the binoculars near. It’s a small and wonderful time, lifted out of the hurly-burly of the encroaching day.
I think some mornings of my grandfather, who came to farming late in life and raised chickens not for a livelihood, but for pleasure. I loved doing the chores with him, filling the food and water dishes as the silly, silky birds clucked up a ruckus. The worn wood henhouse, split by shafts of sunlight, smelled of old straw and happy industry.
Nearly 50 years later, I’m still doing the chores, though the wild birds have less need of me than the chickens that I, too, now keep.
It seems, though, that I still need them – need to fill up the feeders and top off the bird bath – for the pleasure of sharing their pure and uncomplicated lives.