August 1, 2012 issue

Arts & Entertainment

Empty-nesters now, yet still a home
for the birds!

Bernard Heydorn

The birds and their bird houses in our yard provide me with endless entertainment and education over the spring and summer. When we bought our house here in rural countryside in Norfolk County, my wife insisted that the bird houses be included in the purchase. It was a good decision.
We get many bird visitors throughout the year. Some drop in just to say hello, have a meal (food and drink) and fly on. Others stick around longer to rest or even start a family. It's up to us to provide accommodation for the long term visitors.

This we have done with bird feeders, bird baths, trees, shrubs, lawns, bird houses and other amenities. Our bird seed bill, I am convinced, is more than our food bill! We do everything for the birds except clothe them. We are bird watchers and bird lovers.
The birds that come around include sparrows, robins, swallows, wrens, goldfinches, blackbirds, humming birds, Baltimore Orioles, nuthatches, woodpeckers, starlings, cardinals, mourning doves, blue jays, crows and more.

Inn for the birds, courtesy of the Heydorns.

The mating calls and songs of the birds during the spring and summer are varied and interesting. Each has its own distinctive voice – shrill, sharp, soft, loud, short, long, tuneful, tuneless – while one may sound like glass breaking, another is sad and mournful like a Hank Williams ballad.
Soon the birds of spring look around in earnest to make a nest, looking for a room at the inn. They have their favourite spots – high, low, private, semi-private, wherever they feel comfortable. As a rule, they don't like to be too close to the house, to people or to dogs and other animals. Cats are enemies.
Both male and female work at bringing in the material to build the nest in the house – straw, grass, mud, cotton, twigs, sticks, leaves, odds and ends; even part of an old sock of mine that I had thrown out made a soft bed in a bird house!
They work diligently and in a short while, the nest and home is furnished. It's the mating season and the male is whistling his call, the female is answering. Everything is ready for the new family. The husband helps by providing food for the female and the nestlings – juicy worms, berries, seeds, ants, and insects – whatever they like.
The couple then becomes very jealous and watchful of their home and nest. As I walk on the lawn close to a house or nest, a sharp warning goes out from the male standing sentinel in a nearby tree. If I go any closer, he may swoop down or hover right above my head making his intentions very clear. Then it's time for me to run for cover as an aerial attack is imminent!
I begin to think that this is our property: we pay the taxes and mortgage here. Why should I allow myself to be chased away by a bird? It seems that we have gone not to the dogs but to the birds.
A good bird house has to have the right sized hole, depending on the size and species of bird. There should be drainage and ventilation holes. It should be easy to mount, well located and secure. Remember the maxim of real estate – location, location, location. It should be durable to withstand all kinds of weather, storms and seasonal changes.
Bird houses can be very simple or elaborate – man made or commercial. I like the wooden ones. We recently bought one made from tobacco slats (old wood) used in tobacco huts on which tobacco leaves are hung to dry. This bird house has a long front porch on which the birds can perch and rest. It has four holes (separate rooms) and looks like a log cabin.
We have a purple martin bird house made of metal and standing tall on a long post in our backyard. It is hexagonally shaped – two storied with 12 holes. I call it the Hilton Hotel for birds. The purple martins have been scarce but other birds are happy to occupy this Hilton in the spring and summer.
Some birds like to nest alone while others, like the chickadees, like to nest communally to stay warm. Predators like squirrels, raccoons and cats can attack the birds and their homes, eating and destroying their eggs, hatchlings and possessions. This is a great disaster to the bird family and sad for me to see.
After the eggs hatch there is quiet but guarded activity in the home. The female spends a lot of time in the nest seeing to and feeding the young. The male like a good father and husband is busy guarding and bringing in the food. The young ones are soon squawking and crying for food and attention.
I watch the action from a distance not wanting to get in the way. In a few weeks or less, the fledglings are ready to go to school – to learn how to fly and provide for themselves. They come out on the porch (veranda) of their house or nest and look out on the world. They may jump to the ground and find out that they can't fly more than a foot or two. This is a dangerous time.
Our border collie dog is on the lookout. Spotting the fluttering feathers on the ground he rushes over to make a meal of it. I run forward in a desperate rescue bid to keep the dog away. I must now lead the fledgling to a safe haven. If you try to hold the little bird, it is so scared and in a panic, it could easily break a limb. Its heart is beating so fast, it could have a heart attack.
Soon the young ones learn to fly and it's time to take off and leave home and family. The dutiful parents are now free to carry on with their lives or perhaps mate again later in the summer, but not before they have cleaned up their house, ready for the next visitor.
Like good guests and tenants, the birds clean up, throwing the contents of the house, fully or partially on the ground outside. It's now my job to clean up outside in the lawn and garden.
Many folks make the mistake of cleaning bird houses but the birds reportedly stay away from houses that have a human scent. They are wild creatures and prefer the smell of their own kind. When there is no room at the inn, the birds build their nests in the rafters of our car port. There they make quite a mess but that's another story.
You can make or buy a bird house. I have done both. Making bird houses can become quite a hobby for seniors, retirees and hobbyists. The birds are now part of our extended family and I look forward to seeing them in the spring and all year round.
It was Jesus who said in the Bible, words to the effect that "not a sparrow falls to the ground without my Father knowing about it". Many bird species are becoming extinct or endangered. Let us take care of our feathered friends in the nature of things. If the creeks don't rise and the sun still shines, I'll be talking to you.

 

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