Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Feeder Frolic

A little girl in a white frock and oversized bow leapt at a fawn, shrieking, “Come play with me!” With a kick of slender legs and good sense in his choice of playmates, the fawn beat it into the woods. As I sat in my mother’s lap listening to the story, even I could see, though I was no more than six, that this child was doing things all wrong. On every page of the book, the grabby sprite showed no social skills whatsoever: jumping at the frog who jumped away, flying at the bird who wisely flew. By the end of the tale, the child had slumped to a log in lonely despair. Emboldened by her immobility, the forgiving forest creatures crept to her side, the bird perching on her shoulder, the frog harrumphing companionably at her feet. A happy ending of species co-existence.

Such a lovely, simple book for a fifties child like myself. No dying pets, ailing grandparents, or moral quandries - just a happy story about the futility of aggression and the rewards of quiet acceptance. Well, surely that was implied. I think of that little girl often as I sit here on the back porch. As long as I stay still, the bird feeder at the edge of the lawn draws customers looking for a bite.

I am witness, daily, to the reality of pecking order. Titmice and chickadees alight without fanfare on the feeder platform, while bluejays swoop in with self-important squawks; they prefer ground droppings, but seem to enjoy the satisfaction of scaring the little guys away. Doves browse in droves, but give way to just about everyone. In an audible whir of wings and soft coo-chidings, they disperse to surrounding limbs, resigned to waiting for leftovers. Gentle and unassuming, it appears that doves, as innocents often do, occupy the lowest rung.

Squirrels are annoying but entertaining visitors - the clowns of the feeder set. To my near-sighted eyes, they are sinuous grace in silver-gray, twining their way up the pole to hang upside down or sideways. They scold one another, darting in squirrely menace, then play chase in a dizzy circle. The squirrels defer to me, to the turkeys and to today’s formidable guest, but even the crows concede to these goofy gamesters.

From my post as serene spectator, I am ever-learning about feeder sounds and etiquette. A low-throated, melodic cluck and purposeful scuffling of leaves signals the turkeys’ approach. Tiny heads jerk on ungainly necks as they stop in to decide, on a routine basis, that they don’t much like seeds, then strut off, back to the woods. A new sound, a swoosh and thrum, jolts me to attention. A red-tailed hawk, unsuccessful in his salvo, settles his wings as he swings momentarily on a hastily selected, ill-suited twig of a branch, then takes to the sky in a thrust of powerful wings.

During the spare winter months, four deer joined the gang at the feeders. Dave would whistle as he left the house carrying his heavy white seed bucket and the animals would appear, cautiously, at woods’ edge. As soon as he retreated, they strode into the yard, nosing the feeders to release showers of seeds, sometimes rising on hind legs for a better angle. As much as we never tired of seeing them, it was sad that they were so desperate.

The chickadees, too, were made bold by hunger. Dave and I would stand by the feeders with arms outstretched, palms cupped around mounds of seeds. We could hear the flutter of wings through the trees and the echoed call – chickadee-dee-dee-dee. The black-capped birds flew in from every side and perched in the branches about us, trembling as they drummed up nerve. Eventually, one brave soul would start the rush, and they would zip to our fingers, land with a tickling touch of tiny claws, grab a seed and go.

It’s a whole new scene now that it’s May. Doves, cowbirds, jays and cardinals check each other out with flirtatious pursuits and awkward grapplings. If I were a bird, seeking a mate from those assembled, I’d flip a feather at that lusty gray mockingbird. Man, that boy can croon!

Unlike the befrocked, bow-tied waif in Come Play with Me, I seek to remain invisible up here on the porch. I doubt I’ll be nuzzled by a fawn or win a frog’s bulge-eyed admiration, but the animals seem to trust me enough to come close, and that is blessing enough.

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