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.