Sunday, April 29, 2012

Life and Death in the Backyard

A terrible thing is happening at my bird feeder. I’ve been feeding birds for a long time and feeling good about it. My feeder is on a pole, with a plastic dome under it that prevents squirrels from raiding it, twenty feet from the patio door in the back of the house. I feed black oil sunflower seeds to the cardinals and jays and woodpeckers and whatever else makes it way there, and Niger thistle in a tube handing by a side window to the finches. My back yard is big. Where the yard ends a deep ravine starts and when the leaves are on the trees you would think we were on the edge of a wilderness. A green screen shields us from us neighbors across the way. It’s a popular place among our winged friends.

At night we hear the deep hoot of owls but rarely see them. Last winter I noticed a big nest of sticks high in a tree in the ravine and I thought it was the owl’s nest. But then one day I saw a big bird on the ground back by the ravine in the middle of the day. I got out the binoculars and looking closer saw that it was a hawk with something pinned beneath its talons. It looked to be a dove. I love to hear the doves coo. I follow the sound of their soothing mournful call into the branches of our oak trees and see them perched there. Innocent. Passive. They come down below the feeder preferring to eat their sunflower seeds from the ground. The hawk, a Cooper ’s hawk I think, was feeding on one of those good and simple doves. Through the glasses I saw feathers float to the lawn as the hawk dipped his beak and tore into the dove. I thought I saw the dove struggle but then it was still. After a time the hawk flapped his wings and lifted off the ground carrying with it the rest of the dove’s limp and bloody carcass up to the rough nest high in the ravine. A hawk was killing and eating my doves.

Soon after that first killing I was home alone on a Saturday afternoon sitting in the back room reading. I faced the big windows looked out on the back yard. I kept the binoculars on my lap and from time to time I would bring them up to my eyes to get a better look at the bird crowd at the feeder. I thought I had seen a Grosbeak earlier and wanted to see it again. I had just returned the glasses to my lap when directly behind the feeder, out of the treetops by the ravine a large shape swooped quickly into my field of vision. The birds at the feeder scattered wildly in all directions. One of them, a female cardinal, while trying to flee, slammed into the glass patio door not six feet from me. I stood to look. The cardinal dropped like a stone onto the steps leading to the patio. The hawk was on her in an instant. The cardinal fluttered, dazed beneath his talons. The hawk looked directly at me, crouched, and flew off. The hawk was not only hunting the birds at my feeder he was using my house to kill them. The bastard.

I have a thing for female cardinals. They play second fiddle to the flashy males of their species but they have their own grace. They’re quiet and poised. They land on the feeder and look around cautiously before taking the seeds carefully in their beaks, cracking them open, and shaking the husks away. They stay only a short time. They’re considerate and kind, I think, the female cardinals. And by luring them into my yard and up to my feeder I was sacrificing them to this god damn hawk. Why couldn’t he eat the blackbirds? Those stupid uninteresting blackbirds that flock together spring and fall and become a mindless mob of flying thugs.

And what’s wrong with the squirrels? They get fat off the acorns from my oaks. They’re greedy and afraid of nothing, knowing just how long they can wait before taking off in front of my dog, a rescued terrier that has been successful in catching a squirrel only once that we know of in twelve years, though not from lack of trying. Our dog is obsessed and frustrated by the squirrels. We have too many of them. The hawk could surely have a squirrel anytime he wants but no he hunts the dove, the lovely and na├»ve dove. He ravages the long suffering never as good as their husband female cardinal.

And I felt complicit in the whole thing. Knowing I was practically setting the table for the hawk, as much as announcing ‘dinner is ready’ by putting food between his nest and my house, which represented a cliff those poor songbirds could not surmount when attacked, I swore off filling the feeder. Damned if I’m going to help that son of a bitch hawk I though. I continued to fill the finch feeder. The finches seem to appear out of nowhere, a flash of yellow, green or brown. The hawk probably ignores them, considers them but an appetizer compared to the meaty breasts of the dove and cardinals.

So I settled on feeding the finches while the rest of my friends, the bigger songbirds that once counted on me for hundreds of pounds of sunflower seeds each year, landed from time to time on the empty feeder, pecking aimlessly at the empty seed tray, looking in vain for seed. They must have thought they’d done something wrong. ‘Nothing against you’ I wanted to shout through the glass to the confused blue jay at the feeder, ‘I’m protecting you from an indiscriminate killer.’ But the blue jay turned and flew away.

I went most of the winter not filling my big feeder in the back. When the birds needed food the most the feeder sat forlorn and empty. And then as spring came with open windows and warm breezes I heard the birds more often and realized how much I missed them. Maybe the hawk moved on I thought. I found a half empty bag of black oil sunflower seeds, poured them into a plastic bucket and taking the top off the feeder, held the bucket above my head and filled the feeder to the top. I stood back and felt good. It was like calling on old friend on the phone. I walked to the house hoping the birds would notice and be glad.

They did and they were. Before the day was out the woodpecker looped down and clung to the edge of the feeder in his odd way to scoop up seeds. The blue jay came in, driving the other birds away, but only for a moment. The cardinals, bright males and coy females, came back together, like going out to eat as a couple. And the doves landed under the feeder and joined the squirrels who were once again busy packing the black seeds in their cheeks before sauntering away. Life was good at the feeder once again. That was Saturday.

Thursday I came home from work a little early to catch a bite before an evening meeting. The feeder was crowded with birds of all kinds. Since that Saturday I filled the feeder again on Tuesday. I noticed the feeder was a little less than half full as I came from the refrigerator with a glass of milk. I’d put leftovers in the microwave and the bell dinged indicated my meal was ready. I turned to open the microwave door when I heard a flurry of wings and a loud thud on the patio door. I ran to the glass and there it was, mouth gaping open and shut, wings akimbo, another wide eyed tan dove. I rolled the patio door open and stood over the dove. There on the feeder was the hawk, crouched and menacing, waiting to make the final kill. I stood over the dove and yelled at the hawk.

“Get out of here you murdering son of a bitch.”

The hawk looked at me with the same confused look as the blue jay before flying away. I looked down at the dove. It was a goner. At rest. Dead as a door nail. Might as well let the hawk have it I thought. I shut the door.

And there you have it. What to do? Between hawk attacks the birds love the seeds. They’re oblivious to the danger, or maybe they know the danger and accept it. I’m having trouble accepting it. I’m selfish enough to want beautiful birds in my yard so I continue to fill the feeder. I don’t have a gun but I contemplated getting one, maybe a BB gun, to drive off the hawk. But attacking a bird for what it does naturally? How just is that?

Feeding the birds has changed. In reality I’m now feeding birds to other birds. Gazing at the back yard feeder has become like watching Wild Kingdom on TV knowing at any moment a lion could enter the picture to run down and kill the graceful but vulnerable antelope on the savannah, or a crocodile could rise up out of the water, lock onto the neck of a Wildebeest, drown it and eat it before it migrates to the other side of the river, both animals doing what they have to do without knowing why. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly and like it or not that god damn hawk has to eat too. Too bad it doesn’t like black oil sunflower seeds. The drama of life plays itself out in my otherwise quiet back yard. Experience is cruel teacher. Sometimes it ruins things. But then again, that’s what life is like.