Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The law of unintended consequences

I have a friend who lives in Somerset County up a steep hill. Her property slopes and her deck is above the yard. Every summer she gets hummingbirds at her feeder.

I don't know if it's the altitude or the red monarda or zinnias she keeps in a pot near the feeder but when I visit in summer a rubythroat will almost always stop by while we're on the deck. They are very fast, as you can see from my attempt to photograph one.

I envy her because I rarely get hummers. I finally saw my first of the season this very morning, although it could've been coming while I was at work. My town is built on a plateau 400 feet above sea level but my yard is flat.

The feeder is hanging on a pole behind deer netting because I have put plants around it that bloom pink or red flowers to draw the hummers and I don't want deer to destroy the plants. The netting doesn't impede a hummer getting to the sugar water.

Also this very morning a male goldfinch came to feed. This may be the one that has been coming for a while with its mate, or one I have heard doing his swooping mating flight. The same friend with the hummers is envious of ME because I get many more goldfinches in winter, such as those below, than she does. It might be the very flatness of my property, or being located close to the Greystone woods or not having neighbors close by that have cats roaming the yards, as she does.

We always want what we can't have. I always envied those people who live within close walking distance of Central Park in Manhattan when MH and I lived in Queens. When we moved to New Jersey, I envied those who live in or near Cape May, one of the state's premier birding sites. How nice to get up at dawn, walk 10 minutes and see all sorts of birds!

Then my new eye doctor told me he grew up down there and was very happy he was now in Morris County because he had always wanted to bird Great Swamp, 20 minutes by car from my house when there is no traffic at dawn.

Yes, it would be nice to live near one of the Somerset County grasslands so I could go over and hear grasshopper sparrows or dickcissels, both life birds for me, singing at dawn. But then they wouldn't be life birds. They'd be common.

So I enjoy the singing cardinals and the carolina wren and watch the thistle feeder that I've discovered not only draws a pair of goldfinch but chickadees and titmice.

This was not planned but I should've realized chickadees and titmice have no qualms about hanging upside down if it gets them a meal, and are far less skittish about being exposed to predators in an upside-down position than the goldfinch I intended to help during breeding season.

I do not mind them coming because I like chickadees and titmice. Seeing the occasional house sparrow that has learned to hang upside down for a meal pleases me much less.

This is where the law of unintended consequences comes into play. Most people don't realize that changing one thing in the yard can have a profound behavioral effect.

Take my friend with the hummer feeder. She had her yard guys "clean things up" early in the growing season. Not only did they cut back shrubs and kill assorted weeds, they cut down a blackberry bush that had grown to tree size. We used to sit on the deck and watch the birds and the squirrels eat the berries.

The birds can still come to the seed feeders she keeps going all year. But when it got hot and the squirrels couldn't get berries, one of them discovered a sweet substitute - the hummer feeder.

Unfortunately, my kindhearted friend puts out corn for the squirrels in winter and they have gotten used to coming to her deck and finding food. So one must've come up a few weeks ago looking for a snack and was drawn to the red saucer-type feeder. It then pulled off the lid and drank the sugar water!

The experts say this just does not happen. But in this case the experts are wrong.

My friend bought a more vertical type of feeder and came home to discover the squirrels had pulled off the yellow decorative flowers and drank from the open ports. She is now using her saucer feeder again, taped shut. To refill she must use a screwdriver to rip the tape open.

On this I don't envy her at all.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


I did something radical this morning. I walked. In the suburbs. Yes.

Until the end of March I walked almost every day, most of the time to the train station in town. This was the reason we moved to this little town, the ease of walking to public transportation to my job, first in Jersey City and then in midtown Manhattan.

When that job ended in February I started taking daily walks very early in the morning through what has now become a county park, Central Park of Morris County, but used to be the nether regions of the state Greystone Park psychiatric hospital. I heard and saw a lot of birds in those early March trips.

Then I got a new job and it required me to drive to a city on the Hudson River, 35 or so miles away as Route 80 flies.

Things become a blur from the car because you have to concentrate on the road, on your driving, on other cars. The brain isn't stimulated, at least not in what I think is the right way, and the legs aren't being exercised. You get where you are going faster, but you don't enjoy the trip as much.

So this morning I decided that rather than grab the car to do all my local errands I would walk.

It was a real eye-opener, starting with my own yard. How did that butterfuly bush get so tall? Seems like just yesterday I was cutting it back the way you're supposed to in spring to generate new growth.

When did that house on the next block go up for sale? It always has a nice garden, put in with an eye to saving time and water while using plants that deter deer without netting. Will the new owner keep the garden, or will it be removed in favor of just grass or, worse, paved over?

When did that other house rip out its old, tall hedges and put in a sprinkler system that waters the public curb about as much as it waters the small, nondescript replacement shrubs? I used to hear a lot of sparrows chattering to each other from their nests in those hedges. When did that house a few streets away double in size? It's on a lot that hasn't gotten any bigger. I guess people prefer the climate-controlled, soundproofed, technology-driven great indoors and have less yard they'd only have to pay someone to take care of anyway.

I walked along the Greystone road, past the dog park that had only a couple of people letting their pets run at that hour, and found all the deer I chase out of my yard and then some - many had fawns hiding in the long meadow grass. I heard bluebirds, carolina wrens, cardinals. Once I leave my house I rarely hear birds on my drive through town and never on Route 80, where the posted speed is 65 but that is more a floor than a ceiling.

I said good morning to other walkers and waved at neighbors getting their newspapers from the curb. I felt the welcome ache of muscles being used in my legs. I felt the breeze in my hair and the sun, not amplified by the greenhouse effect of my metal car, on my neck.

I enjoyed myself greatly, and I even got my chores done.

Alot of people spend a ton of money to go to exotic locales where they can walk through a rain forest or along a beach or tour museums and historic sites.

Today I was reminded that sometimes you don't have to go far, or do more than put on a pair of sneakers, to get away from it all while reconnecting with the world around you.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

This brood has flown

It was bound to happen sometime.

Things were getting loud and rambunctious at the wren box. The parents were shuttling back and forth so fast and so often I doubt they ate anything themselves. The young got so big the parents had stopped going into the box to feed them unless it was to feed one in the back, crowded out by more dominant siblings.

And the parents would not stop scolding me. All I had to do was walk out the back door and one or the other would be chittering. Much of that was to tell the young to be quiet so they wouldn't give away their position. That's instinct, although considering they were in a box I had put up in an apple tree, rather silly.

But I put up with it.

The apples in the tree where the feeder is hung were getting riper with the hot weather, and the squirrels were increasing their visits and dropping more chewed apples. This required me to go out more often to pick up the remains or pick apples I could reach before the deer came along...although based on what is under the tree my actions are also pretty silly.

Then MH and I went away for the July 4 weekend.

We came back on the 4th, a Monday this year. There were no apples on the ground when we came home but there were the next morning. The wren scolded me as usual. But on Wednesday there was silence as I picked up the apples. I reached up and shifted the box and it was as light in weight as the day I put it up.

But while out of the box the wrens have not left my yard. The male house wren will sing in the morning, particularly if the carolina wren on the next block is singing - which he does quite loudly for a small bird, to my delight.

Lately I have heard the brood but not seen them as they move among the dense shrubery. Momma wren chitters when I first come out, as if to say to her family "Be careful." But she does not come to the tree as I work. (This was a good thing because I wanted to come out and pick as many apples as I could reach or knock down with a stick, which I wouldn't do if the box was in use.)

And who knows, the male may start a second brood in the house. Wrens are not monogamous - when the young can take care of themselves, the party's over.

Whether there's one brood or two, at some point the young will start feeding themselves and will, at the right time, feel the need to head south as the air cools. With any luck one of them will remember my yard and come back.

When he returns and starts singing he will find the box - clean and empty - waiting for that year's brood.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Timing is everything

The American goldfinch is the state bird of New Jersey, so it is a particular pleasure when I see or hear them in my Morris Plains backyard.

In winter both male and female are a dull brown with large black and white wingbars. When they’ve come to my feeders they are usually in a large group.

But as spring approaches, things start to change. The female’s feathers become yellow-green to better blend into the foliage when the trees leaf out and she’s sitting on a nest.

The male makes a more dramatic change – he becomes bright yellow and takes on a black forecap. When it is time to breed, he soars, dips and rises again, a dizzying loop-de-loop, calling as he flies.

The goldfinch has a late breeding season that is directly linked to thistle seeds. What you might see as a bunch of purple weeds in an overgrown field is breakfast, lunch and supper for a goldfinch – and a reason to breed. Without seeds there is no next generation.

Consider Jersey City, the second or third largest city in New Jersey. When I started working there in 1999, there were large, weedy fields in the areas near the Hudson River that had once held factories. With the fields were large hungry flocks of goldfinches eating the seeds.

By the time I stopped working in Jersey City over 10 years later, many of those weedy fields were gone, paved over for large hotel and apartment complexes. The population of birds passing through dropped dramatically.

Some would call it progress or a boost to tax ratables. Considering none of these buildings feature any useful seeding plants in their landscaping, I would say it is a terrible way to treat your state’s bird.

This is why when I start to see the males doing the loop-de-loop, I put out a special feeder for goldfinches. To get a thistle seed the bird has to hang upside-down from the perch. Most birds, such as the larger, aggressive house finch, don’t like to do it. So it gives goldfinches a fighting chance.

Goldfinches are considered a common species by the Cornell College of Ornithology, and its breeding and migration range is within the United States.

(Here’s a fun fact about goldfinches I learned from the Cornell website, if a cowbird lays an egg in a goldfinch nest the chick will die after three days because it can’t survive on a seed-only diet. See my June 12 post "Love is blind" for more of my feelings about cowbirds.)

The suburbs being what they are, I can’t have a vast expanse of weedy field. Nor can I plant drifts of coneflowers, asters and butterfly bush to provide seeds. My neighbors would have me kicked out of town for the former, and the deer eat most of the latter.

So I pick my spots. I leave weeds in corner areas to go to seed. I grow coneflower and butterfly bush behind deer netting. And, of course, there's the feeder.

If I and the rest of the New Jersey population are lucky, the skittish goldfinches will eat the seeds provided, continue their loop-de-loops and raise another brood.

That's my reward for being a good neighbor.