Thursday, December 5, 2013

Hawk on the Feeder

            The birds materialized quickly and in large numbers from -- I don't know where -- as soon we began feeding them once again. We take summers and harvest months off from bird-feeding, times when nature appears to be doing the job without our meddling.

            Some people feed birds all year round of course. And summer days will find many people throwing bread crumbs on the water wherever fowl have gathered to swim and feed and nest. Other parks have signs admonishing "Don't feed the birds."

            There's never a "thou shalt not" sign without a reason. We humans don't have to be told not to feed the birds unless we want to.

            I realize the deeper question is why do so many people, most of us it seems, like birds so much. Oh, we play favorites. We love colorful birds more than plain ones. We like birds with melodic calls or songs more than those that squawk, scold, rasp, quarrel, or pick fights over food. We like birds that are very big or very small. Eagles, hawks, and herons impress us. Finches, chickadees and hummingbirds -- the last especially -- charm us. Others strike us as brown, unremarkable, indistinct, hard to tell apart.

            We like birds that stick around with us all winter -- hence the bird-feeding posse. We like the flash of color from the purple finches at the winter feeder. The tawny grosbeaks. The various red-capped woodpeckers. We adore a cardinal in the snow. But we're also delighted by the return of the summer soldiers and sunshine patriots who return in the spring. When the swallows come back to Capistrano. (Where is that anyway?) And consider the folklore that attends the robin redbreast -- "the first robin of spring"; when you see one you know that winter is over -- even though many robins these days winter over with us yankees.

            We don't have the same feeling for squirrels or rodents or many other of our mammalian cousins, even though they are a lot closer to us on the tree of life than birds. Our feathered friends, after all, are really highly evolved late-stage reptiles, specially adapted to turn skin into feathers. They do not bear their young live. They do not suckle them. They teach them how to fly, or so we are told, and then kick them out of the nest.

            Try that at home.

            You get a better education, certainly a longer one, from Momma Bear. Dogs, it appears, are perfectly capable of welcoming their pups into their pack on an extended basis. Since dogs are such social animals, it's not surprising that people take to them. They exhibit cruder versions of clearly recognizable behavior. They can't wait to get out of the house and go around sniffing for news. So do we.

            But even those of us who do not have dogs wish to "keep" birds around us. Not in our houses, not in cages (a habit preserved more widely in other societies), but nearby so that we can watch them. We like to watch them do the simplest birdlike things: fly, perch, flutter, eat. We have bird feeders so we can watch them dive down, flutter, hover, shoulder in among the others, grab a peck at a tiny portal in a glass feeder. Slobber some extras over the ground for the squirrels.

            It's diverting. Then we try to figure out who they are. Identically flocking, chirping sparrows? A nasty crow? A clumsy, nervous pigeon, ready at any moment to utter a piteous cry and flounder, loudly rifling wings as if to advertise its availability as hawk-food. Then come the smooth, small, neatnicks: black-capped chickadee, smartly crested tufted titmouse, flashing finches, stylish dark-eyed juncos.

            So even though I am also quite impressed by hawks, raptors, broadwings, Accipters, and am perfectly delighted to meet them under other circumstances, I have mixed feelings about seeing them perched on top of my feeder. It's a visual treat to find one there -- so long as it remains a rare treat.

            We've seen hawks swoop through the yard and scatter the peons before, royalty arriving and taking sole possession of the stage, all the lesser creatures doing their disappearance act. Sometimes the hawk perches on a nearby branch, surveying the scene.

            This time the creature, one of the smaller species, perched directly on top of the feeder as if to pose for the viewing audience. When we realized what was on show, we grabbed binoculars and camera, but still utterly failed to make a convincing identification. Sharp-shinned hawk (top photo, from the internet) or cooper's hawk, the smaller entries, were my bets; and those two from what I can gather from the references are remarkably difficult to distinguish. My through-the-window photo was fuzzy, vague, useless. (Photo below; look hard, it's in the center.)

            Obviously we have a lot of learn about hawks, so I wouldn't mind if this preening fellow returns occasionally for a turn on top of the feeder, where we can try to get a more educated look at him.

            But not all the time. We want to see all the little guys do their stuff as well. Besides we're more fond of them as birds than as lunch.