A death in the family
A tragedy, like the dead chickadee in the photo above, seems small compared to what is happening in the calamitous world we live in now, but not to me. That chickadee was a member of our farm family in a real way, along with the two blue jays, six juncos, four house finches, one red-bellied woodpeckers, four nuthatches, two tufted titmice, four cardinals, four white-crowned sparrows, six goldfinches, and three downy woodpeckers that are regularly coming to our bird feeder in the winter. We think of them as part of our livestock, like the chickens and sheep, but mourn the loss of the chickadee more than we would a domestic animal because we have some control over the population of the latter.
Keeping a flock of wild birds turns out to be a little like keeping farm animals. First of all, the birds provide us with many hours of entertainment, even drama when the hawks swoop to feed on the birds feeding in the feeder. They often prove to have different personalities, just like sheep and chickens. Cardinals are much less domineering than blue jays, for example. Some goldfinches are more nervous than others. Juncos are not supposed to know how to pluck seeds out of a cloth stocking the way goldfinches do, but after watching the goldfinch for awhile, one of ours jumped on the sock and kept experimenting until it learned how to get seeds out too. None of the other juncos have followed suit and we can tell because this one is lighter in gray color than the others. For several years, the tufted titmice disappeared completely and we mourned the loss, fearful that some change in th environment might have extinguished them from our neighborhood. But this year, a pair is back.
One of our birds last year had only one foot. Several have had eye injuries. One cardinal had its head tuft removed, probably by a hawk. We have also found that there are little differing genetic details between birds of the same species. One downy woodpecker, gone this year, we called “Dirt Bag” because its feathers had a slightly sooty cast to them. It looked like it needed a bath. One goldfinch has a white feather in the tail where the others do not. Some male juncos are darker than others. There must be infinite variation within the genetic code that allows for an “accidental” trait to suddenly show itself. So much mystery!
The chickadee was a comparative newcomer to the feeder and we were thrilled to have yet another species boarding with us. But as a new arrival, it had not yet learned, as the birds usually do, that the reflection of the woods in the picture window was not real airspace, and when the sharp-shinned hawk suddenly swooped in, the chickadee bolted to escape directly into the glass and broke its neck.
The tragedy raises a grave philosophical issue for me. The immediate fault of the death, and I can’t deny it, is the window. But the cause-effect issue is not so clearcut. Our birds often thump against the window, usually without ill effect. Several times, they have been stunned, and we bring them inside, in a dark shoe box, until they recover. They generally seem to learn, in fact, to distinguish window reflection from the real thing and quit flying into the window. They even learn, although some people don’t believe us, to flutter in front of the window, their wings actually brushing the glass sometimes, to inform us that the feeder is empty.
Yes, I could shutter or shroud the window, I suppose, but then I could not see the birds. Must I deprive myself of sunlight and the lovely view of the woodland, just to avoid the very rare occasion when the window kills a bird— less than ten birds in 35 years in fact? Even if I could find insulated window glass less reflective, there is no guarantee that a bird fleeing a hawk would not bash into it anyway. Or how often in those few cases when a bird dies, would Old Sharp-shin (who has learned that a bird feeder is a source of its food too), have gotten the bird anyway, “saving” it from colliding with the window? The sharp-shinned hawks presents another philosophical problem. They eat lots of smaller birds, and sometimes are smart enough to build their high nests in the tree directly above our bird feeder. Should I shoot them to save the other birds? I decided that nature knew best. Sure enough, the number of birds at the feeder, after nearly ten years of sharp-shinned (and other) hawks in residence, has not decreased, except for the tufted titmice. The only other bird down in population is the pestiferous English sparrow which is reason enough to leave the hawks alone.
In light of the literally millions of migrating birds that are being killed by high tension lines, airplanes, and now giant wind generators making so-called “green” electricity, can I excuse my window for its tiny addition to the danger? I can point, with some justification, that since we have introduced red cedar trees and other winter fruit bearing plants, the bluebirds stay on the farm all winter, even come to the feeder on occasion, instead of flying south on now dangerous migration routes. Might not I excuse myself even more by pointing out that by feeding the birds in winter, we have probably saved more bird lives than the few killed by crashing into the window?
I don’t really know the answer. Does anyone?
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Author: The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land)