Wild Side : Summer's lease
Well, the summer tenants have all moved in. As tenants often do, they act like they own the place. My wife and I have been bossed around in our own yard, scolded if we're in the wrong place at the wrong time, and occasionally appealed to for a free meal. It's enough to make a guy want to leave, or at least hope that his next tenants are human.
They don't pay rent (though I'd argue they compensate us in other ways). But wherever you live on Martha's Vineyard, by the start of June, you're subletting space to multiple species and multiple pairs of avian visitors. What birds you have, and how many, of course depends on where you live and what habitats exist in the immediate area; paradoxically, heavily developed areas sometimes house more birds than pristine woodland. But unless you pay close attention, you're hosting more birds than you know. Our small property off Wing Road in Oak Bluffs has at least four species currently nesting on it, with another half-dozen nearby. And who knows what I've missed?
Sharing digs with human beings places certain demands on birds. A species that is sensitive to disturbance, for example, is doomed to failed nesting efforts if it nests too close to a house. With the parents flying into a defensive frenzy every time a person steps outside the house, there is little time to incubate eggs or forage. And the birds' response to a false threat exposes them to a real one: by reacting to people, who won't harm them, nesting birds advertise the general location of their nest to crows, who will. So our small lot is dominated by a few species flexible enough to grow used to our activity. The robins typically harass us constantly when they begin their nest, but by the time they've laid eggs, they regard us as a benign part of the scenery.
Like summering college students, our tenants have surprisingly complicated social lives. It has taken me all spring to sort out the catbird situation: one pair or two, and where are the nests? Fortunately these active birds, close relatives of the even more verbose mockingbird, sing nearly constantly. And one male catbird, hearing another sing, can't resist chiming in to start a competitive duet. I finally pinned down the male in the cedars out back and the one in the vacant lot across the street. But I suspect they may have only one mate between them: a third (female?) bird periodically flits from one territory to another while both males are engaged in song. And this odd but seemingly amicable ménage a trois is sometimes disrupted when a third male, perhaps trying to take over a territory, arrives to prompt a vigorous dogfight. It sounds like a TV soap opera.
If I am an avid student of birds, our birds are avid students of me. Certain actions on my part, they quickly learn, produce advantages on theirs. If I water the garden, an oriole will be sipping droplets off a hosta leaf before I have the hose coiled. Turning over a patch of flowerbed? A robin perches on the fence, patiently and then not so patiently waiting for me to leave so it can pick the fresh dirt over for worms.