Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Heed the Birds.



"A fisherman does well to heed the creatures that fly."
~ Ted Leeson 


My great grandmother's feeder in Minnesota, 1982.

My great-grandmother fed the birds, my grandmother feeds the birds, and my mother feeds the birds. Now, I do too. October 9th I put the feeders up -- my own feeders up,  for the first time -- the day after our first snow. It's tradition. But carrying it on makes my grandmother and mother nervous -- and for good reason I suppose (as grandmothers and mothers usually have), there are many stories of canyon bears bending suet cages beyond mends and emptying feeders like a gradeschooler with one of those translucent Christmas candy-cane tubes striped from the inside out with red and white M&M's. But I've yet to have any trouble with bears, so I thought it worth giving a go.

Perhaps the feeders are a knock on wood. I’ll see.

But I have to see...for myself, and for tradition's sake. They are hard to keep alive,
traditions, and nowadays hard to come by -- for like other things of age, many times they aren't appreciated until they're rusted, forgotten, and buried in dirt. Traditions are essences of humanity and thus they too will die at some point, to some end. But I haven’t forgotten....and so I feed the birds, and I watch them closely.

I grew up surrounded by birds. On our farmhouse's large deck were hung feeders on the corner posts, and a large messy mulberry tree naturally did the job in late spring. Sparrows and Grackles cleaned up around feeding troughs and buckets, Meadowlarks and Red-Wing Blackbirds roamed in brome fields, and warblers-of-many-colors blended into the umbrage of Indian Creek which formed our property into a "V," like the geese who flew over in autumn.

As an experiment once, my mother and I laid still in our northernmost pasture for a good hour as Turkey Vultures circled above us....just to see if they'd think we were dead, come down, and start pecking -- at which point we'd sit up like corpses in an overly-decorated lawn on Halloween night. That was the plan. They didn't fall for it though (most kids don't fall for corpses in the lawn thing either), and we ended up pocked with chigger bites...yet also backed with the encouragement that their refusal meant we still smelled alive.

And then there were the Barn Swallows, for whose sake I, year after year for two weeks out of the summers, re-arranged barn entries and exits so their young could fledge without being accidentally killed by fat-steers stomping at flies. The swallows ate the bugs in the end, so I thought it the least I could do. The steers certainly weren't helping themselves in the matter.

In our family we were always watching the birds. It was borderline blasphemy to call a Cardinal a "red bird" or Blue Jay a "blue bird." Identification ignorance was grounds enough for incredulous scrutiny upon whether you indeed were of Lundsten stock or not. When I moved to California for college, my grandmother's parting gift to me was Peterson's A Field Guide to Western Birds and a pair of binoculars. There were going to be new birds, and I wasn't to be calling them simply by their color. Snowy Plovers, Brown Pelicans, Caspian Terns, and Northern Mockingbirds were all in my vocabulary by the end of first semester. Grandma will be proud, I thought.

And now, a Kauffman Guide to Birds of North America sits on my kitchen window sill (allegiances switched from Peterson), with the binoculars my grandmother gave me still sitting atop. Ironically, a Gray-Headed Junco flies into one of my big kitchen picture windows as I sip coffee and write this piece. He falls into one Banjo’s paw-prints which is crusted in snow like a plaster cast. In between stillness, he twitches. And then, like my mother showed me to do as a little girl, I go outside and cup him in my hands until the warmth revives him and he flies away. I am not sure why this works, but infallibly, it does -- like salt on a fly.

My grandmother and mother have taught me well. When I am on a lake, I watch the Pelican’s placement, and the Osprey's hover and dive to make a catch before I can. There is no competition between us as fishermen. They are the old masters, the ones who rely on being a good fisherman for food, not a pleasured pastime -- although I do sense they find pleasure in it as well, for it is their craft and livelihood and that which builds a life for them and their families. I watch and learn. I heed what they say. And when I’m on a river or stream, I watch the harbinger Bank Swallows and Dusky Flycatchers swoop into a hatch before the trout can even rise.  


Ted Leeson writes that while one can acquire all the technical skills one needs -- that, does not make a fly fisherman. Rather, fly fisherman is a temperament which one is either born with, or not. A gene which can never recess, and manifests differently in each of its hosts. Recently, I've had the thought that I've been enduring the symptoms my entire life, and only now discovered the treatment -- only now do I appreciate my temperament, seeing it working to some end, good or no.

And recently, I've been thinking that my great grandmother must have been, and my grandmother and mother must be fly fishermen too. They show the symptoms. We were all just born that way.   

47 comments:

  1. Great post. The Juncoes are a sure sign that winter has arrived in the South, I guess the same holds true in CO.
    My allegiance will always be to the Peterson guides (even though I allow others to sit on my book shelves). The only thing that has come close to challenging them would be the Sibley guides to birds. For amphibians and reptiles, there is no acceptable substitute. Your grandmother must have been a wise woman.

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  2. Awesome post! Though I love everything about the outdoors birds have always been a big part of my understanding and enjoyment of nature. What other kind of creature can stir deep emotions like the sound of a loon or wood thrush. What other creature could tell you exactly what time of year it is? I find them also to be great alarm systems in the woods letting you know what's off in the distance before you even get there. Terns and gulls are also very helpful when trying to locate saltwater fish. I couldn't imagine my life without them.

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  3. Jay - Thanks so much! I liked my Peterson the best too(lost in a fire, of sorts)...I don't remember how the Kauffman came to me. My grandmother keeps Sibley's too *(for cross referencing). She is a wise woman indeed. :)

    Kiwi - Thanks! Your comment is just loaded with observations....and when you really start to pay attention to them, like you say, I can't imagine life without them.

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  4. Beautiful post. I've been feeding birds ever since I can remember. Every morning I have a huge crowd waiting for breakfast.

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  5. Traditions do have a way of fading or being forgotten. My family was in town last week, and we were talking about how time and distance change things...although, my sister is determined to make sure that her daughter grows up in the exact same manner as her...burnt eggos and all.

    you have been passed the torch, and it sounds like you have firmly taken the reigns.

    Great piece. Cheers!

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  6. Phillip - The birds and our dogs...always happy to see us coming.

    Sanders - My family is far away too, and it does change things, and I think the fact that people aren't rooting down by their families anymore. However, out of this new traditions start. Constantly changing.....like us. Burnt egos? Some traditions should die. ;-) Thanks as always...

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  7. "Ted Leeson writes that while one can acquire all the technical skills one needs -- that, does not make a fly fisherman" So true.

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  8. I was really into feeding birds for awhile. Honestly I got tired of buying feed. The birds and #$*!&! squirrels would clean it out quick. I have a guide too and often see juncos, titmice, golden finch, cardinals, carolina wrens and the occasional nuthatch and woodpecker.

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  9. The birds enjoy the feed i put out for them every day, i only have to put up with noisy Jackdaw's though, not bears!

    When i pike fish i like to look for the Grebes, i like to see where they are working the water for the bait fish.............. the pike will not be far behind.

    Watching the bird life while out and about on the rivers and lakes can sometimes lift an otherwise dull day.

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  10. I love watching the birds outside my in-law's house-- the quail show up and eat the left overs kicked out by the sparrows and finches followed by the doves who just seem to wake up a bit later.

    It's kind of neat when your feeders become part of their everyday food stops...

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  11. I'm a Sibley man myself - there's one within touching distance of me as I type - but there's a Peterson prominent in the living room, by the big window, and a Kauffman on the bookshelf. One can never be to careful in proper avian identification.

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  12. And during the winter months when you run out of tying materials, just open the window.... kidding. Great post as always, Erin

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  13. Kev - I was hesitant, because I remember the squirrels being bad back in Nebraska. But so far, I haven't seen a single squirrel come near the feeders. In the canyon, Magpies are going to be the bullies, I think.

    Tom - Indeed, they bring a little bit of the wild to our windowsills. Thanks as always.

    Brian J. - I like how you describe their feeding times and patterns...it's definitely neat to be an observer, and included in their feeding rounds.

    OneBug - Thanks!

    Mike - Always prepared! And different guides have little bits which the others don't, and sometimes that one little bit can be the clincher!

    Richard - I do pick up stray feathers on walk. Scavanging tying...it's hip. ;)

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  14. We believe it worth every penny to keep the feeders stocked all year around, for visual entertainment its hard to beat.
    Avian company whilst on the river, be it a Dipper, a Coot, or a Kingfisher, just makes it a more complete experience.
    Great post, always a joy to read.

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  15. I like how your Mom And Grandma turned you on. I agree with the "visual entertainment" factor. Animation to the landscape. Nice post.

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  16. William - I believe it to be worth every penny too. Many thanks for stopping by, and for the comment!

    Herringbone - "Animation to the landscape" => I love that...a most perfect description of birds. Thanks for your kind words.

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  17. I used to feed the wild birds all through winter, until about 4 years ago I came to the realization that I was attracting, and feeding rats as well. The rats moved into our crawl space, then our attic. So now the birds are on their own. I used to feed pheasants that escaped the release site nearby, too, but then people built on the property next door and the pheasants rarely appear any more. I may try baiting the turkey vultures like you did, though. That sounds like a great experiment in stealthiness. I am suddenly inspired, thanks!

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  18. On a slightly different note than your other commenters, (she sighs), I would explore Mr. Leeson's thoughts(a great angler and writer), as you quoted. "...a gene which can never recess..." Huh. That would make it a unique gene indeed. It follows then that fly fishermen, as defined, cannot be from other stock than that ones who have the gene. Unless they are a mutant. They do not have to fish necessarily, you alluded to that saying that neither your mother or grandmother fish. "...it manifests differently in each of it's hosts."
    What then would be the characteristics of a 'true fly fisherman', since simply fishing with flies and a fly rod do not cut the mustard? Is it definable, or something more elusive?
    Are we left with the thought that what constitutes a true fly-fisher is some quality that has a litmus test? Or worse, to my thinking, one of those things that falls under the category of "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."
    Sorry that I go against the grain occasionally Erin. Different drummer and all that.
    Cheers,
    Mike

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  19. Kirk - I wish you better luck with the vultures than I had!

    Mike - Interesting thoughts, all of them. And I do believe it to be somewhat elusive...although perhaps more along the lines of knowing, for instance, which dogs would make good service dogs. Or in horses, we'd call it "aptitude." Certain personalities are more inclined to (natural at) "the contemplative man's sport" as it was once called, than are others.

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  20. Nice story. Like you, I enjoy many traditions that have been passed down through generations, all of which I attempt to encourage with my children. Some of them will take I suppose. Others will be erased with my passing I imagine. This isn't a world that takes kindly to old glitter. Sometime I wonder which ones I neglected to include in my life.

    Oh, I once watched a man catch a red tailed hawk. He lay burried in the dirt for an hour or so with a hare whose feet were bound, struggling in his hands. After circling for while, the hawk finally flew down and attempted to snatch the hare. It was one of the coolest things I've every seen. Then, he let the hawk go. Raptors are amazing creatures.

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  21. My wife doesn't go anywhere outdoors without her National Geographic Birds of North America and binoculars, since her Peterson's was lost when she was mugged by a birdwatcher in some God-forsaken place that had unfamiliar (to her) birds. I knew she was more civilized than I when I found that the reason she was collecting corks from wine bottles (besides the wine)was that she was building bird houses out of them. I loved this piece the best.

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  22. Gary - That man with the hawk. He is now my hero. What a cool thing to experience and for you, witness. Wow. Just wow! The thing about traditions is that it's always a toss-up as to which ones will stick...often, the most unexpected.

    Cofisher - Wine cork birdhouses...your wife is cool. And, civilized. ;-) Thanks as always, Howard.

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  23. My, my, my Erin. Yes, yes, yes.

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  24. I love birds. Glad you've got the feeders out; you'll never be alone. Thanks for this piece. It made me feel good.

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  25. Watching the feeders is a great way to lose and hour or two, the pecking order is always an interesting clue as to how nature works above and below water.

    I also warmed and released a bird just the other day - a lowly sparrow that hit the window but, unlike the wood pigeons, it didn't leave a greasy impression of its outline.

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  26. Mr. P. - Thanks, times 3.

    Jim - Birds are indeed, a merry presence. I'm glad that they, and this piece, brightened your day a bit.

    Dave - Gee whiz no, I would not want to see the stain pigeons would leave! ;) And you're so right about the pecking order....it's fascinating!

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  27. I learned bird watching and fly fishing from my grandfather. Yes, we were both born that way.

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  28. FR - I suppose some would say it's a curse and a blessing, eh...?

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  29. The space between the bars should not be too big that a bird's head can get through and end up caught in between steel bars. One more thing is the section inside the cage bird; you ought to take into account enough area in terms of the width and height for greatest flexibility of the parrots.

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  30. Hudson - Oh no...no parrots here. :)

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  31. You have encouraged me to go and buy some feeders. Problem at my house is I have tried it in the past and never had much luck. Not a lot of trees in the neighborhood I think might be one problem. No where for them to hide out.

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  32. tnfishdaddy - It can take them awhile to figure out the feeders are there....but they will. Feed and they will come...

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  33. HA! I guess great minds think alike. I am sitting at home, enjoying the snow day, and saw that my back yard was filled with birds. Mostly Robins, but saw some other randoms including a Cardinal. Some of the smaller birds I couldn't remember, so I broke out my copy of Kauffman Guide to Birds of North America to figure it out.

    They were American Gold Finches, if you were wondering.

    Another great read. Thanks.

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  34. My mother fed birds, all her daughters feed birds, and we all keep an eye out on what birds are around different times of the year. I wait for January for the Baldie's to make their nests in Northern Colorado, then for the doves to arrive, the robins and finally the pelicans...I ask my husband to stop often along a road just to see swans from Wyoming fly over us near Walden. I liked your post...and yes, the bears, well, they may come when it warms up..my sister has them all the time, they drain the hummingbird feeders like a French woman drinks a goblet of red wine...

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  35. AHA! Now I understand your short bird rant from last trip. When I said, "You know those black and white birds..." I'm glad you are keeping the tradition alive!

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  36. Master of Kung Fu - Ah, good use of Kauffman. Watching birds in the snow is the best...the way they puff out their feathers for extra warmth...thanks for reading!

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  37. FisherGirl - It gives me hope for my seed feeders, that the bears never messed with my nectar feeders over the summer. Fingers kept crossed though!

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  38. Nerd - Did I rant? Oy. I don't remember. Apologies. :) But I do think I remember them being Magpies!

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  39. Lots of responses to this great essay running through my head.

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  40. John loves to feed the birds.(Winter only of course.)He loves the way they nag him when he goes outside. The feeders are sheltered by overhanging spruce to protect them from hawks.Window injuries and fatalities are greatly reduced by the bunches of feathers I cut from a duster and hung in front of the windows on black thread.(Looks a bit like some ind of Indian ritual!)I prefer my contribution of lots of mostly native perennial flowers and also veggie garden plants that I let go to seed.The birds feed on these and find overwintering critters on the stalks and always leave enough seeds to pop up next year in wonderfully unexpected places.
    Oh, and Erin.... I'm SO SO excited for you!

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  41. Hart - Unbeknownst to me when I hung up the feeders, was John's tradition of doing the same. Jay came home from work and they were up..."Oh! After the first snow! My family does this too!!!" This made me smile. This spring I want to get a garden going (my thumb is brown...I may be peppering you with questions!), and plant some flowers to entice the hummingbirds in. Oh, and I've always liked sprinkling seeds from pumpkins and watermelons and such out in strange places to see if they come up. It used to work in Nebraska, but I don't think they like mountain soil...I'm going to have to do much work on raised beds, I think. Oh, and Thanks for your excitement! Mine has turned into nervous-ness! :)

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  42. Well Erin,

    Nicely done. I'm an amatuer birder myself also with a penchant for collecting wildflower seeds from fishing trips and trying them at home. Some have been spectacular successes, others less so. We, my wife and I, do feed the birds. One day maybe 4 years ago a squirrel decided that it knew where the seeds come from and invited itself in. We tentatively approached her with a plate of nuts. Too Easy. Then on a whim I held a peanut in my hand and soon she was in my lap. My grandson named her Judy. Since then, there is always a named squirrel who feeds from my lap, knows where to find me inside, and as he or she disappears another magically takes its place. Their personlities rival peoples', from very timid to exteremely demanding. Always gentle, my toddler grandkids feed the bolder ones, and those also follow strangers into the house. It does sadden me when one is suddenly gone, they have become real pals. A startled tail leaves a great mess when I'm tying!
    An old Petersons is wrapped up in glass tape, I used to carry it with me as a smokejumper and that is my sentimental bird quide.
    Thought I'd share, Gregg

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  43. Gregg - Fun with squirrels! What delightful craziness. I'm not sure if I could lure down my pine squirrels, even with peanuts. They seem quite a bit more aloof than the fox-squirrels I remember of my youth. (And I make enough of a mess of my tying desk...I can't imagine adding a squirrel's tail to the messy mix.) :-) Thanks so much for reading, and for your thoughts and memories.

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  44. Thanks Erin,
    Those guys are amazing, some shake when eating from you, some will perch on your head, some will try to leap on people coming in. They were introduced to our valley along with bullfrogs at the turn of the last century buy a prominent businessman who strangely thought they belonged here. Our red squirrels at my home in Alaska probably couldn't be coaxed by anything either. Fishing should be a spectator sport, but so many, even fly fishermen, always have their eyes glued down. A recent trip had a eared grebe in winter plumage (that threw me)hunting mosquto fish right below me, he was fascinating. No need to reply, I simply read your prose and enjoy.
    Gregg

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  45. I think you already gave yourself away as a bird person. Love the post! I have bird issues myself.

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  46. finsandfeathers - Ah, twas never a secret anyhow, as much as I may think it was. ;) Thanks so much for stopping by and reading.

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