Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Counting the Bird Feeders

Various well-meaning organizations choose this time of year, earthfast mid-winter to induce the unsuspecting citizenry of bird feeder nation to take part in their annual winter bird counts. They think if you're feeding birds you might as well count them so then we'll all get some use out of this unnatural activity. There's the Christmas Bird Count, the Mid-winter bird count, and another one coming up in late February (Survivors Rollcall?).
Of course, there's also the "no bird count," the one where you put all your winter togs on, stomp outdoors with your big bag of rich black-shelled sunflower seeds, expose your tender little fingers to the wind-chill in order to manipulate some percentage of the store-bought seed into the feeding mechanism, stomp back indoors, take your own fat downy feathers off, then stand by the kitchen window and exclaim, "Where in blazes did all the birds go?"
It's an easy count when the total is zero.
All self-serving plaints aside, bird-feeding is one of the great cold-climate winter sports in these parts. One of its main advantage is that for the great majority of the time you're indoors and it's the doughty little avians, who apparently don't mind so much, who are outdoors. This is far superior to say, fish-feeding, which during winter is almost solely practiced, as far as I can tell, by the act of protracted lingering over thick ice on a body of very cold water after drilling a hole through the ice (though otherwise trying hard not to molest it), and then waiting for fish to pop out of the hole to be counted.
I have no idea how you go about counting racoons, badgers, porcupines or coyotes in winter and leave the whole idea in the hands of hardier folk. So if you are in a counting mood in mid-winter, that leaves us with birds.
But do not pretend that this is a simple matter.
Understand that those who create these bird population surveys are not content with hearsay -- with well-meaning light-hearted reports: Oh, heck of a lot of birds! Mostly your little brown jobs! Just all over the place! Have a look at that one, willya'?
Oh no, they're sticklers for details. They want to know what kinds of birds you have. They want to know pretty much exactly which kind. One well-known authority in this field, I won't mention any names, recently produced a list, by name, of some thirty bird species most likely to be turning up for free lunch at your feeder.
This list does not include the thin-skinned hawk (it hates being talked about) which recently chilled the lunch-time crowd at our place. Hawks and other big charismatic high-flying fellows don't even make this accounting. But they give you 30 varieties of smaller look-alike creatures, out of the maybe 200 species common to our neck of the map, and expect you to make the distinction.
These suspects, alphabetically arranged, have names such as American crow. In a spirit of international brotherhood, I am open to recording crows of all nationality, but while we do see crows in our trees we do not see them at our feeder and I am hard-put to imagine it. American Goldfinch is a different story. It may be distinguished from House Finch and Purple Finch on the question of size alone since it resembles a large yellow-warning traffic light. It's a finch on steroids. However, if I am asked to distinguish house finch from purple finch and referred to the paired photographs provided by the authority, I can only conclude there is no discernible difference.
These birds are paired in a section titled "easily confused birds." I fear for these mentally troubled avians: Will they find their way to the feeder without assistance?
Here, birdie birdie! The feeder's right in front of you!
We are similarly shown pictures of the Hairy Woodpecker beside the Downy Woodpecker: same little red spot on the back of the head, same lovely white checks on black coat over the wing and tail feathers. The only difference I see is Downy boy is about two and a half inches longer. Keep that ruler handy! The difficulty is we have the hardest time getting them to stand still long enough to use it.
All in all, it might be simpler to ask the birds to count their feeders this time around. Of course, this raises another perplexing question: Can they tell us apart?
How many lonely housebound writers peering outdoors every day, watching the line of the birdseed in the feeder sinking down as the minutes pass? How many underpaid housewives? House husbands leaving the toddlers alone with strict instructions not to fiddle with the house electronics until they return from filling up the feeder?
Some species of bird feeders, as I am told, have so well mastered the art of distinguishing one little brown feathered flyer from the next that they can estimate its length within a centimeter from the kitchen window while humming several measures of its winter pick-up song. These are called "birders."
The rest of us pretty much see birds of a feather who seldom stand still enough for us to entrap them in their distinguishing characteristics. We are called "humans."