It no doubt seems odd to set up a birdfeeder in early spring, just as the trees begin to flower, just after the birds successfully scraped and foraged their way through long winter’s barrenness. But even as the earth was rousing itself from a chilly slumber, so was I.
My son and daughter-in-law were house shopping and invited me to come along. (I am always eager to see how other folks live.) One house they looked at had a village of birdfeeders out on the deck beyond the breakfast room. The flittering and flattering of feathers and beaks was incessant. And irresistible. I wanted such a menagerie outside my window too.
So in the better-late-than-never mode, I bought a stand, a gracious feeder, lots of seed and settled down to enjoy the show.
And indeed I do. True, without a birder to tell me exactly who is coming to dinner, I cannot be certain about identifying my feathered friends. But so far it seems that we host a constant cacophony of cardinals (of these I am sure); chipping sparrows; brown-headed cowbirds; titmouses (titmice?) and sometimes woodpeckers. (I welcome and invite corrections on these observations.)
The choreography and pecking order of those who visit our hanging restaurant are endlessly fascinating. The sparrows and the cardinals seem to get along just fine. And cardinal couples seem to share the feed nicely. But rarely do two male cardinals alight at the same time. Although as many as 6 or more sparrows share a common table. But everyone leaves when the cowbird comes.
What no one told me was how hard it is to fill this feeder. Like most, it is top-loading, made of metal mesh that holds the seed like a silo. The seed slowly empties into a dish on the bottom as the birds empty it out. The problem is, that as I pour the seed in from the top it bounces out through the sides of the mesh and spills all over the ground below. I was unhappy about this, but it seemed to be nothing more than a nuisance, and a waste.
But today, it proved to be deadly. Working at my desk this morning, I noticed a cinnamon-colored animal stealthily creeping to my pachysandra, near where the feeder resides. At first I thought it was my cat, who is remarkably the same color. But he was snoozing on my sofa. Peering out the window again I saw that it was indeed not the cat, but our fox, whom we have taken to calling Charlie. Odd, I thought for him to be out this time of day. And so evidently in the open.
And what, I began to tense up, was he doing? It didn’t take a naturalist to realize he was stalking - eyes and ears trained on prey that was hidden from me by the cover of the undergrowth. But now, following his gaze, even I could see the leaves of the pachysandra under the birdfeeder shaking by the movements of an animal exquisitely oblivious to all but gorging on the unnatural bounty created by my sloppy pouring. In a moment, the fox pounced and after but one or two attempts, emerged with a female cardinal in his mouth.
I felt that I had clenched the bird in mine - felt the pulsing, dry feathers on my tongue. It was my fault the bird was caught. For a moment I tried to console myself by taking the fox’s side: he too needs to eat and no one puts carrion feeders out for him. This is nature tooth and claw, the way it is meant to be.
But in truth it felt more like a fixed hand, a rigged game, like shooting fish in a barrel.
My next effort at consolation was that perhaps the cardinal was ill already - else why would it not have perched on the feeder, safely out of harm’s way, as the other birds do? But then, I cannot really see if other birds feed below the post, feasting on the flotsam that sails from the feeder.
So now I simply wonder, without consolation: Is it too early for the cardinal to have laid her eggs? Are there fledglings somewhere now without a mother?
The chattering at the feeder continues - no mourning is evident there. But I wonder who, besides me, is missing the cardinal.