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The blackbirds are back! February 21, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Ah, the joys of February. Just yesterday, for the first time in two months, the mountains of snow and ice that had blanketed our friend Ben and Silence Dogood’s rural cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, had finally retreated to the point where almost all of the ground was green or brown. Two 60-degree days last week had released us from winter’s icy grip at last. Our friend Ben almost wrecked the car on Saturday when Silence suddenly started screaming—turns out she’d seen a flock of snow geese, one of our favorite birds, for the first time since fall. Spring was clearly in the air.

This morning, the ground is white again. We became aware of this at about 6:40 a.m. when a passing car skidded into the field across from our house. Soon police and tow trucks had stopped traffic, lights were flashing, and the day had kicked off to a somewhat more lively start than is usual in our sleepy rural setting. (Fortunately, neither car nor driver was injured.) We found ourselves staring out at 3 inches of fresh snow, with more big flakes drifting down.

We weren’t the only ones who’d been tricked into thinking it was spring. One look at our feeders showed us that the blackbirds were back. Grackles, red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed, black-bodied cowbirds, starlings—there they all were, trying to convince themselves that they hadn’t made a huge mistake by showing up today.

We admire the bold, beautiful grackles, big, showy birds with iridescent black, purple, and green plumage. They aren’t the least bit afraid to snatch a piece of cat food from under the nose of our outdoor cat, Dixie, though they’ll also help themselves to seed from our feeders, standing their ground against any and all comers but not trying to drive them off and deprive them of their share.

We’re also fond of the red-winged blackbirds, so called not because their wings are red, but because mature males bear red-and-yellow epaulettes on their black shoulders. They can be found in our meadow garden during the growing season, helping us keep the bug population under control. We say, welcome back!

We feel considerable ambivalence about cowbirds, who evolved with the bison of the Plains and whose range was limited and controlled by bison populations and movements. Unfortunately, when pioneers exterminated the bison and started raising grain, the cowbirds’ range and population expanded exponentially. This is a problem because cowbirds are parasites, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. Species that become inadvertent hosts of cowbird eggs raise fewer if any of their own chicks. While we think cowbirds are beautiful and appreciate their original role, consuming the pests that plagued the bison and making life better for both species as a result, we’re appalled by their current status.

Starlings are even worse. It’s not that we have anything against these birds individually. Right now, before their plumage dulls to black, it’s an attractive spangled glossy brown with gold highlights. Rather, it’s the number of starlings we object to. Huge flocks cover the bare trees, screaming and shrieking. These starving masses make our squirrels look like polite diners who only go back for one refill at the all-you-can-eat buffet. If there were five or even ten starlings in the yard, we wouldn’t mind. But 500 starlings! No, thanks.

One reason we have a problem with starlings is that they’re alien invaders, like stinkbugs and Japanese beetles, who have multiplied out of control in their new, predator-free environment. And we have Shakespeare to thank for it.

Not that Shakespeare meant to unleash starlings on the unsuspecting citizens of America. In fact, we suspect he’d had a few pints too many when he had Harry “Hotspur” Percy announce in Henry IV, Part I that he would teach a starling to speak to the king. He was doubtless confusing them with magpies, whose renowned talent for mimicry has caused many to be taught speech.

Unfortunately for us all, Shakespeare’s starling reference was responsible for the starling invasion here on U.S. soil, thanks to an idiot named Ernest Schieffelin, a wealthy drug manufacturer in the Bronx, and his American Acclimatization Society. Though it sounds like a group dedicated to helping immigrants acclimatize to American customs and ways, its real purpose was to import every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works—all 600 species—and release them in New York’s Central Park.

The European starling took its turn in 1890 and 1891, and spread like contagion across the U.S., growing from an initial flock of 100 to today’s 200-million-plus, and displacing native birds like our beloved bluebird along the way. (Shieffelin’s Society was also responsible for introducing that other menace, the house sparrow, which has displaced innumerable native species of small songbird and threatened their existence.) 

We can only say that, in today’s culinary climate, in which two top trends are all things meat and all things local, it’s a shame that consuming starlings hasn’t caught on. Where are chefs and hunters when you really need them?! And incidentally, we have at least six fat squirrels here at Hawk’s Haven if anyone’s in the mood for burgoo…

Where are the cardinals?!! December 13, 2010

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We’ve been having an unusually cold winter so far here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Nights have been in the teens for weeks, causing both of us to shudder as we hear the furnace running all night, despite the thermostat being turned down to a warm and welcoming 50 degrees F. (It’s supposedly burning fuel oil, but it might as well be burning money as far as we’re concerned.) Given the extreme early cold, you’d expect—at least, we’d expect—an unusually large number of birds at our feeders.

So far, that hasn’t proven to be the case. We have a nice flock of chickadees and titmice, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches, a large flock of sparrows, our resident goldfinches in their drab winter disguise, a few house finches, a pair of juncos, red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers, a bluejay, and a lone pair of cardinals. Normally, we’d have a large flock of juncos (one of our favorite birds), maybe four bluejays, more house and purple finches, and about ten cardinals. Where are they?!

Not that the feeders aren’t emptying quickly enough, mostly thanks to a large contingent of the fattest squirrels in Pennsylvania. Our friend Ben read in today’s paper that squirrel season starts today, and God knows, ours would make some mighty fine eating. (Burgoo, anyone?)

Their appetites would be aggravating enough, but the miserable marauders are trying to eat our feeders along with our birdseed. I wonder if spraying the outsides of the feeders with the “Phooey!” spray we use to keep our black German shepherd, Shiloh, from consuming our rugs and woodwork would prove to be a squirrel deterrent? Hmmm. 

But I digress. Has anyone else noticed a dearth of birds at the feeders, or the absence or scarcity of some regular visitors? If so, please tell us what’s happening at your feeders!

Evicted squirrels, starlings file complaint. March 9, 2010

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“BE IT KNOWN that we, the squirrels residing on the property of Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home of our friend Ben and Silence Dogood located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, wish to file legal complaint against the said OFB and Silence for unwarranted eviction and mental cruelty.

“We, the plaintiffs, had no sooner completed a new entrance through the outer wall of the building on the property known as the ‘studio’ than the harrassment began. Our architectural improvement had taken considerable time and labor to achieve, and we were just starting to move into our new headquarters when the said OFB entered the said ‘studio’ with an item popularly known as a ‘boom box’, set it up adjacent to our entryway, and proceeded to turn it to a 24-hour sports station at an unacceptably loud volume prior to departing. As is well known, we squirrels are quite fond of athletic feats and games of all sorts, but these human games hold no interest for us, and besides, the volume made it difficult to sleep.

“However, we were at first prepared to believe that the aforementioned OFB was attempting to add to our comfort, noting our presence in the said ‘studio’, to the extent of his limited abilities, and to overlook the discomfort caused by the said ‘boom box’ and regard it as a goodwill gesture.

“But on the following day, Saturday, March the 6th, as most of us were out enjoying the spring weather, searching for nuts, trying to upend the birdfeeders, and taunting the resident cat, a new hostility of an egregious and inexcusable nature occurred. A single squirrel remained in our new residence to watch over it while the rest of us carried on with the business of the day.

“Suddenly, the said squirrel perceived a Person, unknown to us before, materialize at eye level atop a very, very tall ladder. The said Person brandished a Stick and even went so far as to insert the said Stick into our entryway with the clear and malicious intent of driving out the said squirrel. The terrorized squirrel barely had time to flee for its life before the aforementioned Person screwed a square of sheet metal over our beautiful new entryway, blocking our access to our new headquarters. This eviction was as unanticipated as it was unwarranted.

“BE IT FURTHER known that we, the starlings also residing on the property of the aforementioned Hawk’s Haven, wish to join with the squirrels to file complaint. The said squirrels had generously invited us to make use of their new entryway to remove insulation from the said ‘studio’ in order to line our nests, currently under construction.

“But, despite the most industrious efforts on our part, we had been unable to remove more than a few beakfuls of insulation before the said Person arrived and blocked access to our building materials. As a result, our home construction projects are temporarily on hold, and with so many of us hoping to move in and start families this spring, we regard this action as both physical harrassment and an act of mental cruelty, causing us to suffer acute distress.

“THEREFORE, be it known that we, the squirrels and starlings of Hawk’s Haven, have retained the services of a lawyer, Mr. O. Possum, Esq., who is seeking damages from the aforementioned our friend Ben and Silence Dogood on our behalf as follows: one (1) twenty-five (25)-pound bag of mixed nuts, and one (1) roll of insulation, as well as one (1) bag of assorted yarn, string, twine, and metallic streamers to assist us (the starlings) in our home-building efforts. We have also hired a contractor, Mr. R.B. ‘Red’ Woodpecker, to determine if more suitable entryways could be constructed in the walls of the said ‘studio’.”

To which document we affix our mark [X].

Witnessed this day by O. Possum, Esquire, LLD.

Help! The squirrels are driving us nuts! March 1, 2010

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“Ben! You’ve got to do something!!!” Silence Dogood screamed at our friend Ben as I lurched, exhausted, through the front door.

Now, it’s not exactly a secret that Silence, industrious soul that she is, finds our friend Ben’s exertions somewhat lacking, but really. I had just been doing something approximating work for the past ten hours. Fortunately, before my overtaxed brain could formulate a stinging rejoinder, Silence went on to reveal the nightmare that had overtaken Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, PA.

“Squirrels have chewed a hole into our studio!”

Our friend Ben must shamefacedly admit that I was torn between relief that Silence’s original remark hadn’t been directed at yours truly’s lack of enterprise and horror at the picture of rampant destruction this conjured up. Silence and I are fortunate enough to have a two-storey studio on our property. Each floor has a single room, and the studio connects to a large one-storey toolshed with an attic. The top floor of the studio is Silence’s fabric studio, and it’s absolutely full of fabrics of all types and stripes, yarns, antique and modern quilts, coverlets, and other historical fabrics, and Silence’s collection of vintage clothing. The bottom floor is our friend Ben’s, and houses my collections of rocks and fossils, antique plant pots, unique handmade birdhouses and feeders, and an assortment of vintage gardening tools, Pueblo pottery, dried gourds, and what-have-you. (It used to be our plant room before we built the greenhouse.)

As you can imagine, the thought of squirrels rampaging through either floor was not a pretty picture. But the thought of them ripping up Silence’s heirloom fabrics, antique clothing, 19th-century hand-hooked rugs, and beautiful quilts and coverlets, the collection of a lifetime, didn’t even bear thinking about. Not to mention the mess.

“Where is the hole?!”

“Right under the roof. I saw it when I was taking Shiloh out earlier this evening. I heard a chittering noise, and looked up just in time to see a squirrel disappear into the hole!”

OMG. That’s Silence’s studio. And not only that, that hole is waaaay up in the sky, probably higher than our extension ladder can reach. Not to mention that yours truly is deathly afraid of heights. But clearly something had to be done.

“I’ll go inside and see what’s going on.” Seizing a boom box, our friend Ben boldly made my way into the squirrel-infested studio. Hmmm, no damage to the ground floor. Gingerly climbing the ladderlike steps to the second floor, our friend Ben was not, as I feared, assaulted by an army of outraged squirrels. Nor did I encounter horrendous fabric nests filled with naked baby squirrels, caches of nuts and the birdseed we’d inadvertently been providing, and an overriding reek of squirrel urine (and worse). Instead, I found… nothing.

Silence was certainly right about the hole. There it was, at the highest point in the wall. But so far, for whatever reason, the squirrels have not continued their excavations into the studio itself. Our friend Ben can only hope that 24-hour ESPN broadcasts at top volume will suggest to them that trees really are better, or at least quieter, housing options.

Now I’d like to turn the discussion over to you. Silence and I hate to stop feeding our backyard birds—a huge source of pleasure and entertainment to both of us—but we don’t want to continue feeding the squirrels and encouraging them to hang around. We don’t have a gun, so shooting them isn’t an option. We don’t want to live-trap them and release them elsewhere so they can become someone else’s problem. But we don’t want them chewing through our walls! If you have any suggestions for us, we’d be so grateful.

Vandals strike, off hook again October 20, 2008

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In breaking news, the vandals that ransacked the Hawk’s Haven birdfeeders have struck again. (See our earlier report, “Newsflash: Vandals strike, off hook for now” for coverage of the original incident.) Called to the scene by a distraught Silence Dogood, Feline Bureau of Investigation special agent Linus Beaumaine at first could find no sign of the missing feeder, only the dangling hook where it had been just the previous night.

“I just bought that hook on Saturday so we could hang the feeder again!” wailed Ms. Dogood. “I can’t believe the villains struck again!”

A thorough search of the premises revealed the feeder, empty but unharmed, lying in a clump of pulmonaria some yards from the house. “These are desperate times,” Agent Beaumaine cautioned. “It’s unwise to hang feeders within reach of these vandals. You’re lucky the feeder managed to survive two such vicious assaults. Few feeders would have escaped unscathed.”

Ms. Dogood confirmed that, just last week, she’d heard a horror story about plastic tube feeders being ripped to shreds by squirrels as they hung innocently on their hooks in a suburban North Carolina yard. The Hawk’s Haven feeder, a cheap little Droll Yankees all-plastic Bird Lovers model, was, against all odds, still in excellent condition.

Declining to take Special Agent Linus’s surprisingly sensible advice, Ms. Dogood insisted on returning the feeder to its hook on the rose-of-Sharon shrub. “I can see these feeders while I’m working on the computer,” she explained. “If I move them, I won’t be able to enjoy watching the birds nearly as much, since I’m in our home office most of the day. Besides,” she added, turning an accusing look on the unfortunate FBI agent, “What about this other feeder?! It’s the same kind of feeder, also filled with black oil sunflower seeds, and it’s hanging in the same shrub, barely a foot away from the plundered feeder, yet the vandals don’t bother it at all!”

Special Agent Linus appeared to be at a loss for words. Not one to let a chance for free publicity escape, President Ben took advantage of the momentary pause to say a few words. “Let’s try to keep this unspeakable outrage in perspective,” he said, while refilling the plundered feeder. “True, the perpetrators remain at large, despite our friends at the Feline Bureau’s best efforts. But we remain undaunted. We still have the feeder, and at least they didn’t make off with the hook this time.”

Smiling confidently (at least, until he realized that cub reporter Marley had failed to bring a camera crew with him to the crime scene), President Ben attempted to assure Ms. Dogood that all would be well. “In addition to the ongoing efforts of our worthy special agent here, I’ve retained the services of Private Investigator Danticat, who will continue to skulk unobtrusively in the nearby evergreens while waiting for the fiends to show themselves. Justice will be served! Nobody’s getting off the hook during my tenure in office, unless they show up with some really tasty bribes or, say, a bottle of very expensive port or bourbon.”

Attempting a conciliatory tone, President Ben added, “Uh, Silence, I do think we should consider hanging that feeder a bit higher up in the rose-of-Sharon. You could still see it from the office window, and after all, not everyone who fills the feeder is 5’5″.”

Unfortunately, this attempt at reasoning did not appear to have the effect the president was seeking. When last seen, he (along with P.I. Danticat, Special Agent Linus, the police, and your faithful reporter) was running for cover while pursued by a torrent of abuse from a highly incensed Ms. Dogood, who seemed to feel that “heightist” comments were uncalled for, especially during a traumatic time like this. As your reporter was fleeing the scene at the time, I can’t verify this, but I believe I saw a few spruce cones being hurled at President Ben’s rapidly retreating back by the enraged Ms. Dogood, whose aim was, all things considered, surprisingly good.

Further reports may be forthcoming, if I can find another reporter who’s willing to fill in. Meanwhile, the criminals remain at large. Readers are encouraged to bring their birdfeeders in at night to avoid a similar fate.