Critters: Part IV

And now for the final installment in my animal saga. The last notable denizen to move onto my property since March is a bird that chose to nest in my ornamental cherry tree. I noticed it only because a) it’s not a mockingbird, the variety most often seen in my backyard, b) it’s very large, and c) it chose to nest in a tree barely adequate for the task.

I am an avid, though casual birdwatcher. I love having songbirds in my yard, and two homes ago I was fortunate to live where enormous shade trees supported an ample variety of cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers, doves, wrens, finches, orioles, and hummingbirds. I made my office in the den at the back of the house and had a wall of large windows overlooking the backyard and patio. Wrens nested each year in my Boston fern, and the cardinals would come precisely at noon each day to feed. If their feeder was empty, they would peck my window glass and fuss at me. I fed generously, supplying the cardinals with black sunflower seeds, the jays with striped sunflower seeds and peanuts, the doves with cracked corn, the finches with Nijer thistle, and the hummingbirds with nectar.

Of course, the squirrels learned how to pull the top off the cardinals’ feeder and would hang upside down while filling their cheek pouches to bursting. I watched the woodpecker court his new lady friend by bringing her to the feeder and selecting the best nuts to feed to her, one by one. There was the day of the hummingbird battle, witnessed through my kitchen window, in which a small green-throated hummer struck his larger, teal-blue opponent such a fierce blow to the head that the blue hummer fell to the grass and lay stunned. I thought he was dead, but after several minutes he roused and flew off.

The doves cooed and grew fatter, making their small heads seem even more absurd. And the obese tan-and-white field mice benefited from all the spills and dropped seeds.

However, my current home is in one of those newish subdivisions carved from raw prairie ground. It has developed slowly. So although I’ve lived here nine years, new streets are still being cut at the back of the development, and the cedar thickets providing habitat for varmints of all types, including coyotes, continue to be forced back. The ground is hard red clay–the kind you make bricks from. Tree roots can’t penetrate it and rope across the top of the lawn instead. (If the tree lives at all.) Required by the HOA to plant and maintain at least two trees on each property, neighbors exhibit varying degrees of success in each small yard. Scrawny saplings, staked and cabled to protect them from the unceasing wind, offer next to no appeal to songbirds. They wear water bags, like unbuttoned cardigans slung around a girl’s shoulders, and still they die or–at best–grow stunted.

When I moved here, I found a few sparrows and house finches, mockingbirds, and an occasional red-winged blackbird. The sparrows sit and twitter in my rose bushes. The mockingbirds nest in the shrubbery. And I saw no cardinals at all until last year, when one flitted shyly in and out of my yard. This year, there are more of redbirds. They come cautiously to sample the bits of hulled sunflowers placed in a saucer for them on the flowerbed wall. They remain unsure and do not stay long. There is no arrogant pecking on my windows … yet.

Last summer, eagles flew over my house regularly, soaring on the wind currents, but they have not come back this year. That’s probably due to the new streets cutting down more of the wild thicket to the west. (The coyotes no longer howl and yodel in the night, making me shiver while I wait on the patio for the dogs to finish their late-evening perambulations.) The mockingbirds sing but that’s all. The doves that sit on rooftops do little cooing. Instead, they utter raucous cries that are harsh and discordant.

But in March, I noticed a peculiar reddish-brown bird sitting on the backyard fence. It was spotted and large, with a long tail. A mutant mockingbird? No, definitely not. I watched it flick its tail up and down before it flew into the fragile branches of my cherry tree. This tree–planted as a mere whip when I moved here–has grown slowly, slowly, slowly to a height of perhaps eight or nine feet. Its top spreads maybe five feet wide. It did not bloom for the first three years after planting. Finally, it began to open a few delicate pink buds as dainty as a baby’s ear. This year, thanks to the balky spring and fluctuating temperatures, only a few blossoms opened. And there, making the entire treetop sway alarmingly, was this large bird and her nest.

I decided she must be a thrush. I haven’t been outside enough to hear her sing. After all, I’ve been busy fending off the unsavory newcomers. I don’t know if Mrs. Thrush eats insects or will come to a feeder, but I suspect the former. Even so, she’s more than welcome. I hope she’ll stay, and if she migrates, I hope she’ll return.


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