At Large: New birds

When we moved to the city, we thought that we and our bird friends had been sundered forever. In the old place, we had feeders and baths across the lawn about 75 feet. We watched the flock cavort through binoculars. We thought they’d appreciate the discretion. If they noticed the food supply getting short, they flew over to the house to whiz and dip outside the window until we noticed and got busy. At times the flock ran heavily to doves and jays, and squirrels of course.

I’ve told you before that at work downtown, regiments of birds visit me nearly every day this time of year. I enjoy their company, which has been reliable year after year in the fall. When I tell Moll about my visitors, she smiles. I love that smile. Fondness, amusement, indulgence, wistfulness, and a tiny, pale cataract of unease: it is a smile of many parts.

The birds come in a streak. First, they send a small scouting party, black ops. They perch on the railing outside my office, then on the posts that support it. The red finches, the regulars that sing to me tirelessly, have had the place to themselves since spring. When the newcomers’ scouts arrive, the finches beat it. From my stories, Moll recognizes that they are hardly exotics. They’re grackles, and she smiles that smile.

The attraction is the bittersweet that twines around the 20-foot posts that support the dilapidated porch outside my office. This bittersweet is so robust, so outgoing, so hardy that over the years it climbed my porch on two tall posts and made its way toward the sliding door through which I watch the harbor beyond the changing array of endangered species hauled out at Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway. This woody, grasping relative of the nightshade is heading for my room and, I fear, for me. I hope the grackles are holding off the bittersweet.

Actually, they’re not grackles. A little research and I discovered they are starlings. European starlings, Sturnus vulgaris. There is nothing wrong with starlings. Moll smiles. An oriole would have been nice, or a meadowlark, but I got starlings.

In the new house, we decided to entertain the birds on the porch. They found the feeders right away. Finches, chickadees, woodpeckers, jays, cardinals, and of course portly mourning doves. No workaday office starlings.

What surprised us were the hummingbirds. What astonished us were their combative personalities. Tiny and frenetic, they fought and fed, imposing themselves unhesitatingly; now they are 10 feet from the kitchen window. Sometimes they hover, wings beating madly, right at the window, and we burn the dinner on the stove. They run off the doves and run from the jays, and mostly they are indifferent to the squirrels.

We are not indifferent to the squirrels. We invited the birds, how did these squirrels crash the party — that’s how we think about it. Plus, we learned in another house we once owned that your basic squirrel thinks the bird feed we set out is fine as far as it goes, but the real goal is to get inside and make a home for himself. (By the way, at the old house we scientifically established the familial relationship between squirrels and rats when we discovered that a neighborhood rat had made a home for itself in an outboard motor we stored outside. It made a meal of every wire and hose in the engine.) We are not on good terms with the rodent population.

But, in our new place, with the feeders just a few feet from the kitchen window, we think the persistent use of a BB pistol will improve the living conditions for our feathered friends and us.