Essay and Photos by Lucienne Miodonski, SWS Class of 2021
It started gradually. First a hummingbird feeder. Then a second one. Winter came so I bought a tube feeder for the small birds because they needed to eat too. Then I bought a second one. It started getting cold, so I bought assorted suet feeders to hang from the trees because the birds would be needing extra fat to stay warm. You see where this is going. I am a serial bird feeder.
I bought bags and bags of seed: thistle, thistle mixed with millet, assorted seed blends promising to bring a large variety of songbirds. I bought sunflower seeds, mealworms and peanuts. I bought tube feeders and platform feeders. I even bought a squirrel feeder. Come one, come all.
Almost immediately after hanging the feeders, a huge undulating cloud of twittering birds descended on my garden. They were a finch-sized bird, streaky brown with muted yellow edges on their wings and tail. The Merlin Bird ID app I had installed on my iPhone helped me identify them as Pine Siskins. They were voracious. I had Pine Siskins at the feeders, under the feeders, under shrubs, under plants and in trees. The dogwood tree, where the largest tube feeder hung, was crowded with tiny birds dotting its bare branches. Birds were everywhere.
Nothing much distracted the hungry mob from their bonanza. I could get within inches of them and watch as they gorged at the feeder. If I stood quietly one would land on me and sit a moment before flitting off. They found their way to my waterfall feature and hopped around on the wet shimmering rocks, splashing and bathing in the cold cascading water, drinking and singing happily. My yard was alive with a symphony of bird song. I delighted in watching their comings and goings.
Until I found one dead. It was lying near the feeder, cold and wet, a second one was dead nearby. It was the day after a big rainstorm, maybe they were old or weak and could not hold up against the deluge. The next day I noticed a Pine Siskin perched at the tube feeder, feathers puffed and lethargic, it looked sick. Two days later I found one dead in the tray of one of the feeders.
I searched the internet for any info on sick or dying birds near feeders, but all I could find was a warning from last year’s outbreak of salmonellosis in Pine Siskins. To be safe I washed and sterilized my feeders using the online protocol and hung them back up. I cautiously watched for any more sick or dead birds. Everything seemed fine, but a few days later my dog excitedly presented me with a dead Pine Siskin she found under some shrubbery. Was this bird newly dead or had it been there a while?
Days later my husband alerted me to two dead Pine Siskins on our front porch. They were inches from each other, apparently seeking warmth from the porch light and shelter from a recent snowstorm. This was my fault. Had my leaving the feeders out kept them in the area too long? Were my feeders contributing to the spread of salmonellosis or other communicable diseases that they were succumbing to? One thing was clear, I needed to take down the feeders and leave them down for a while.
The squirrel feeder stayed up. It’s a clever design consisting of a wooden box with an entry/exit hole cut into each side and a large glass Ball jar attached to the front that can be filled with peanuts (sunflowers, etc.). The object is for a squirrel or any other peanut-loving creature to find its way inside to reach the jar of peanuts. The level of peanuts inside the jar dictates how deep inside they need to go to get their prize.
Judging by the amount of effort the squirrels put in the prize was a worthy one. Fatso, the Gray squirrel and Thugzilla, the Douglas squirrel displayed amazing dexterity and bravery in their comical antics to get a peanut. They kept busy most of the day retrieving peanuts and running all over the yard burying their treasure. Soon a pair of Steller’s Jays joined the fun. The smarter of these two boldly went in and out of the feeder and flew off to a secret location to hide or enjoy the peanut. The second one, although watching the first one closely, just could not figure out how to get inside or didn’t dare.
My bird feeders are up again, the Pine Siskins appear to have moved on, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, assorted sparrows and the like have taken their place. I bought a new platform feeder the other day; it was just too cute to pass up. And I downloaded plans from the internet for a feeder I plan on building from reclaimed fence boards. I bought some bags of seed and eyed a couple of new tube feeders I might have space for in the front yard. You see where this is going…