hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

November 14, 2013

A bird feeder that serves another purpose

By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — I enjoy feeding birds. A tour of my property will unveil the obvious. Feeders everywhere, from trees and clothes lines to hangers in obvious places.

Few pleasures excite me more than seeing my fine feathered friends flutter about like an Audubon society on the rise. No supermarket seeds for these fledglings. I buy them the good stuff — top shelf — at the specialty stores where I pay top dollar.

Like I said, they entertain me at each feeding.

The problem is this: They are forced to share company with the squirrels and chipmunks. And it’s often the bigger critters that get their way. I was determined to solve the problem with a squirrel-proof feeder.

Any additional weight on the perch would close the door, denying them access. I suspended it from the roof of my shed, away from any possible intruders. The only way to get there was to fly.

Yes, I’m aware of flying squirrels. You won’t find any around these parts, but rather the Appalachians.

So I approached my friendly dealer and purchased one that was guaranteed against squirrels. Problem solved? Not a chance.

Now I’m getting the chipmunks. No matter where I place my feeder, they’ll make the approach like a soldier on a reconnaissance mission. The other day, I stood watch at my kitchen window. All was well. A nuthatch was replaced by another, which gave way to a pair of yellow finches and on came my cardinals.

A blue jay was feeding from the ground next to a mourning dove and all were getting along just fine.

All of a sudden, I spotted a chipmunk from the corner of my eye. The vigilante hopped from a tree to the roof and gallantly made its way to my feeder. The birds scattered like a cat had come calling.

Next thing I saw was the chipmunk hoisting itself to the top of my feeder and shimmying down. They must have drill sessions by the way they’ve mastered this maneuver.

“You’re wasting your time,” I snickered under my breath. “Just watch the outside cover slide down and block your entrance. Toooo bad.”

Only it didn’t work that way. The animal managed to poke its head into the opening and enjoyed a meal, making a glutton of itself. Finally, I went out and shooed it away like I wouldn’t do to a bird.

I have yet to see a bird go after an acorn. So why would a chipmunk or squirrel go after their food? Every other year, it rains acorns on my property at the lake. And this was the year. I’d see the squirrels and chipmunks scurrying about, collecting whatever they could gather for a winter’s supply.

“Have all you want,” I’d rejoice. “Less I’ll have to rake and dispose in the woods.”

All that was left were shell casings. The nuts had been removed.

I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying my birds over time. There used to be a time when I couldn’t tell a grosbeak from a tanager. And a Baltimore oriole isn’t just the name of a baseball team but a fantastic songster, flaming orange with a black head.

I recall doing a story once on a woman who nursed a robin back to health. The fledgling had apparently fallen from its nest when she found her on the ground. That bird stayed with her for a decade.

Whenever she tried releasing the robin, it would fly back to its caretaker. They had grown to be inseparable.

One of the best books I ever read was one written in 1940 by Paul Gallico titled “The Snow Goose.” Without divulging more than I should, it’s about a deformed man living in England who befriends a large bird during the advent of World War II. It’s 60 pages of soaring bliss.

It doesn’t surprise me that a number of ball clubs have chosen birds as their mascots, such as the Toronto Blue Jays and St. Louis Cardinals. I find it more compatible than, say, the Pirates, Rays or any of the Native American tribes.

The habit has caught on with my children. I visit their homes and see feeders at each dwelling. Truth be told, it’s usually the wife who handles the feeding. They get the predators, too.

Each morning I hear a symphony outside my door. The birds are harmonizing. It’s nature’s call and I’m inspired by it. The ducks always get fed at my lake in summer. Sometimes they’ll eat right out of my hand. I have one loon.

“About time to pack it all in,” came my wife’s voice recently. “It’s almost winter. The birds will be just fine. They’ll forage for food on their own very self sufficiently.”

That may be true, but I’ll miss the visits.

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.