MARTIN CHEMNITZ PRESS
A MIGHTY FORTRESS LUTHERAN CHURCH
Pastor Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.
6421 W. Poinsettia Drive
For Katie, Age 13
BIRDS WE LOVE IN THE BACKYARD
A reader told me that his daughter, Katie, age 13, likes to read the bulletins about birds, so this one is written especially for her. Daughters are a very special blessing from God. They give the greatest possible love and remind their fathers of the qualities they first loved so much in the girl's mother.
Why do we love birds so much? God made them to be one of the most cheerful of His Creation. Their songs fill the air from morning until evening. A grumpy Pietist would say, "Yes, they are protecting their territory." But the lion does so by roaring, a terrifying sound filling people with dread, so that the Apostle Peter compared the devil to a roaring lion, going about seeking someone to devour. Birds claim territory by singing.
Last month I was in St. Louis for my niece Ida's graduation. I was put in charge of Josie, my granddaughter, age 3, for the big dinner at an Italian restaurant. She was an angel for a long time, and then tired of all the strangers. We went for a walk down the old streets of St. Louis, in the Hill area, where the best Italian restaurants are found. We spotted a male cardinal on the phone line, whistling: "Too-wheet, too-wheet, too-wheet, chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck." I translated that as: "My street, my street, my street, go, go, go, go, go." I decided to whistle him down. Every time he called out, I answered. Josie pointed her hand to the cardinal each time he tried to refute and dismay me. My whistle grew stronger and louder with practice. Sensing my overpowering physical presence, he flew away and began again in a safer place. I won.
Cardinals are loved by everyone. The males are bright and sing with great gusto. Males are jealous of masculine rivals. I caught one staring into a car rearview mirror, so I took a picture of him. He must have wondered who the handsome stranger or menacing devil was in that mirror. The female cardinal is a delicate earthtone version of the male, in many ways far prettier.
Cardinals are shy, so they will bathe in the birdbath in the far corner of the yard rather than one in the open. They love sunflowers seeds.
Wrens are considered good luck by gardeners. They are tiny but aggressive in the pursuit of insects. I watched one chase a moth into a group of plants and through that group of plants, emerging with the insect in her mouth. Wrenhouses are often bought by gardeners to welcome the wren into the garden.
I was collecting my books for this bulletin: How to Attract Backyard Birds; Backyard Birds and How to Attract Them; Birdscaping Your Garden; How Birds Behave; and so forth. I almost bought Birds in the Backyard and How to Attract Them, but I thought better of it. I like to get up in time for Matins, a service held in our yard every morning. Vespers is pretty inspiring too. The birds gather in the desert dawn and sing their praises to God. Luther said, "They don't even know where their next meal is coming from, and yet they praise God before they even look for it." In our yard, they DO know where their next meal is coming from. After Matins they gather at the tube feeder, whether it is full or not. If I am watching them from the patio, I get the message and fill it for them.
When people ask how to bring more birds into the yard, I suggest the following:
1. Set up a feeding area that can be viewed easily, as close to the house as possible. Outside ledges can be used as feeders. Birds will land at the window and eat. Consideration should be given for how the feeding area will look. We had to stop feeding under the patio roof because of droppings and seed hulls. However, by mounting the tube feeder on a pole, we were able to have great bird show only a few feet away from our seats. They hardly notice us when we talk and eat there. Some birds will now land on the feeder when I am three feet away.
2. Birds will generally take two weeks to accept something new, so they will not flock to the feeder at once.
3. A birdbath next to window is great fun. I got the birds so used to seeing me at the New Ulm parsonage that I could stand next to the window while they splashed around.
4. Once the birdbath and feeder are set up, more of each can be established. More food and water will bring more birds.
5. The best investment in feed is 20-50 pound sacks of black oil sunflower seeds. They attract 42 species of birds and the cost per pound is quite low. A 50 pounder in New Ulm cost about $13. Half of each sack went to squirrels, so I get more value now from the seeds in Phoenix, although I pay more per pound. I just bought 80 pounds of seed for them. $26. A bargain.
6. Change the scenery in the yard.
Birdscaping the Garden
Some people (names withheld) think my gardening methods are, shall we say, quirky. But I am working at creating as many areas as possible for birds and insects. Yes, both, because they go together.
Plants can offer either shelter or food for birds. All seed producers are bird feeders, and that includes weeds. Bird lovers will often leave one area of the yard wild, letting the grass and weeds grow, to encourage those birds who eat seeds and need ground shelter. I had one garden, Wormhaven I, so wild that a brown thrasher moved in. The nest was between a lush garden and a tall hedge.
We tend to think all weeds are icky, but many of them produce plenty of food for birds while improving the soil. Plants also harbor insects, so they appeal to birds by adding meat to the diet. When plant leaves fall to the ground, the rotting cycle brings more creatures onto the scene, mostly soil dwellers, to eat the rotting leaves and mold. A mass of weeds will inevitably be appealing to various birds and animals.
Our renter in New Ulm places his feed on window screens, to keep them dry. An evergreen tree near the feeder is surrounded by ornamental grass, another great seed producer. The birds never leave. They move from the tree to the feeders to the ground.
The complications of God's created order can be seen within the narrow range of the relationships among birds and their fellow creatures. People often reduce avian activities to a few cliches which are wrong: robins just eat worms; hummingbirds live on nectar alone; birds become addicted to feeders and die in droves when someone takes a vacation; only songbirds are good birds.
Robins are commonly seen tugging at worms, but they vary their diets. They will eat bread crumbs, seeds, and insects. Baby birds in general grow up on insects and larvae. A compost pile is always a great hang-out for birds. They can see the sowbugs, pillbugs, centipedes, millipedes, earthworms and other creatures moving under the leaves, grass, and refuse. It is great fun to watch the birds eye their prey from a bush or stump and pounce on the wiggling creature. Dig up a grub while gardening and place it on a stump. Its wiggling white form will quickly become steak dinner, served very rare.
The dove family grows on pigeon milk, semi-digested seeds. Sparrows are also eager seed eaters. The unpopular starling will eat anything in any weather, but he prefers fat, meat, and bugs. All fat eaters are great buggers, so the wise gardener makes them welcome with bags of suet all over the yard in the winter, planted with the new roses in the spring. (The latter is an old wive's tale I tried in New Ulm. The roses were magnificent, but I didn't do a double-blind study. It was a successful technique that two British gardeners came across by accident. I was long on suet, so I buried it when I planted new roses. In Phoenix I cannot give suet away all winter.)
Fat loving birds are also lovable. Chickadees will do their arial tricks around the suet. Nuthatches (upside-down birds) will land on the suet and take away their little nibbles. I named two of them Mr. and Mrs. Squeak in New Ulm. They would creep around the bark of the tree in their unique way and squeak at me. I took it as a friendly greeting.
God's infinitely complex Creation reveals itself in the acrobatics of the chickadee versus the design and purpose of the nuthatch. The chickadee is a little jet fighter, twisting and turning in the air to catch a bug. The nuthatch is designed to walk up a tree and see the bugs and bug eggs hidden in the bark. The hidden bugs are barely visible from a normal point of view. The nuthatch cannot miss them and he never gets a sore neck.
Smaller birds are almost fearless while large birds embody wariness. The crows who lived so well in Midland, Michigan, from the spillage from birdfeeders, left the ground at the first sound in our kitchen in the morning. We left the Kiehlers' home one evening and saw the sky filled with hundreds of crows. Apparently their roosting site was disturbed, so they were swarming in the sky, majestic in flight.
Tiny birds will eat from the hand of a bird lover. I have not tried this so far, but I have seen many pictures of people doing it. It is best attempted after a major ice storm, with the bird feeder hidden away. Birds will then overcome their normal wariness. Once comfortable with a human, they will seek out the person who feeds them. Chickadees are more trusting, but blue jays can also be trained. Some people do not like turning wild animals into pets. I am happy with keeping my distance.
The most aggressive birds are naturally in Washington D. C. They must absorb the attitude of politicians who need constant feeding. I think the birds on the Mall would sit on my lap for food.
I am listing some ideas for birdscaping the garden below:
1. Plant vines where they are appropriate, but also try them in unusual places, supported by a tree or a bush. Many vines flower and fruit easily, so they are food sources for birds. Mature vines harbor abundant insect life and offer shelter as well. Someone decided to plant Japanese ivy at Harvard, so it had to be called Boston ivy from then on. Other old schools had to have the same look, so they planted Boston ivy. Later they formed a football league and called it The Ivy League. Boston ivy can become fairly invasive and has tough little gluepads for support, but it is a true birdhaven. English ivy is also popular with birds, useful as a vine and as a groundcover under trees.
2. Think birdscaping in terms of height: tall trees, small trees, and bushes. Birds live or feed at all levels and on the ground. I like neighbors with trees, but I want bushes of all types to shelter and feed birds.
3. Our block wall can support rampant vine growth, with sunflowers dotted along the perimeter, some berry plants, perhaps gooseberry, and roses in front. Sometimes in the Midwest one can create a patch where a striped garden spider will spin her marvelous web, catching the morning dew in the sunlight, making us gasp in amazement. Why use insecticides when God provides so many insect predators who are arthropods themselves? It takes a thief to catch a thief. (I had to say arthropod because spiders are not insects but both are joint-footed, or arthropods. J. R. R. Tolkien is a great writer, but he called a spider an insect in The Hobbit.)
4. Rampant greenery, abundant water, compost, and manure will load the dinner table. When the food offering is varied and plentiful, many types of birds will visit.
5. Keeping food in the same place will generate gossip in the bird world. Watch for migrating birds at the feeder. They need an energy boost for their long flight, so unusual species will drop in. I looked at a huge bird on my feeder in New Ulm. It was the deep woods pileated woodpecker (Woody Woodpecker's model). He looked at me and took off. I don't have a lifetime birdwatching notebook (yet) but I keep a mental note about birds I would like to see.
6. Wild weedy areas are good for birds and butterflies, but so are wood piles and branches. Birds are so perch-crazy that they are now using the sunflowers, even though they have a perfectly good wall and fence to use. Heat may be an issue for them. The block walls absorb a lot of solar energy. Yesterday, the hummingbird feeder was the temperature of a car radiator in stalled traffic. Pile up brush and watch it become a roost for happy birds. (My main concern would be that dried brush could become a fire hazard.)
7. Study bird books and obtain the plants loved especially by your favorite bird. They may be shelter plants or food plants.
Birds are endlessly fascinating, close at hand, showing that the fool says in his heart "There is no God." Hummingbirds weave their tiny nests from moss and pussy-willows. Swallows pack mud up into a barn or carport and trust their little families to live and thrive. The chickadee builds a nest to show his true love. If she decides to marry him, she tears apart the nest and makes him start over. (I am trying to overcome tremendous temptations involving human comparisons. Deep breath. OK. I'm over it.)
The oriole nest is woven and hung. I would like to get inside the brain of an evolutionist and examine how all this makes sense apart from God. In fact, once I almost bought an entire book on weaver birds. The only thing we can say that all birds have in common is feathers. Apart from that, generalizations tend to run into exceptions, subordinations, and contradictions. Some birds dive and swim. Some do not fly. Their homes can be a burrow in the ground or a pile of sticks in the clouds.
I learned a few things about birds from my mother's pet cockatiel, Chappy. I enjoyed her lightness (a design feature necessary for flight), her warm feet, and her expressive top feather. The feather would rise at any sign of emotion, a decorative and expressive eyebrow. She was very attached to my mother and had my mother wrapped around her little claw. My mother actually mounted the cage on a wheeled cart, to take Chappy to each room where she worked. If not, Chappy yelled, "Mom! Mom!" in a loud, carrying voice. It was very flattering to be so needed. And yet, the same demanding bird was almost comatose when I was around the cage and Mom was gone. In addition, every night Chappy did a wild threat display with a loud hiss when I said hello to her, always for an appreciative audience, my mother. Otherwise, I did not exist.
Birds were created by Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, so that we can say, with the poet, against the evolutionist, "Hail to thee, blythe spirit, lizard thou never wert."