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Never mind the stereotypes, just feed the birds

Kenneth D. Gough • Feb 10, 2019 at 8:00 AM

The birds live large outside my kitchen window.

Some people indulge in fine wine, some in gourmet chocolate. I indulge in bird seed.

I’m a backyard, picture-window birder, a casual amateur with an OK camera and pretty good binoculars, not the person who treks off to the mountain in the Peruvian Andes that’s the only known habitat of an exotic hummingbird, carrying 20 pounds of camera gear worth more than my car. Nonetheless, I’m well-compensated for the suet, thistle seed and songbird mix I provide. The birds present an ever-changing show; every day a new variation on a theme. Who’s going to show up today?

They’re especially welcome this cold gray time of year, when all we can do is wait it out until spring arrives and the sun returns; a bright little entertainment that defies the chill and gloom. The usuals are always there — cardinals, blue jays, titmice, a half-dozen different sparrows that I can’t tell apart.

But other, more-interesting fellows show up, too. (The fellows are usually the more-interesting ones, the brightly colored ones. The ladies are mostly drab, the better to hide while incubating eggs.)

Several generations of little downy woodpeckers, formally dressed in black and white with a red band on the back of the head, have helped themselves to the suet; they come nearly every day. Their big cousin, the hairy woodpecker, which looks like the downy all grown up, is supposed to be in the woods nearby, but must stay there because I never see one. However, every now and then their even-bigger cousin, a pileated woodpecker, a bird of the deep woods, long and lanky, with a bright red head and tall crest, will make an appearance. One showed up just the other day, powerfully chipping away at a decrepit old redbud in my yard, digging grubs and insects out of the bark and decaying wood. I should have cut down that tree years ago, but now there is reason to let it stand and die a natural death. A larder for the woodpeckers.

This winter a trio of Eastern Towhees have been hanging around, strikingly beautiful birds with black head, wings and tail, russet sides, and white belly. They’re ground feeders, scratching through the thick forsythia below the feeders, but at least one of them has figured out how to land on the seed feeder. Clumsy at first, now he’s a pro.

What birders live for is the unusual bird, the rarity seldom seen or seen where it’s not supposed to be. That takes skill, but having none, I depend on luck and bird seed. What the great philosopher, Yogi Berra, said applies in this case, too: You can observe a lot by just watching. It happened to me a couple of years ago when a little green bird showed up for several days and kindly posed for photographs. When I couldn’t identify it, my ornithologist friend congratulated me for finding an orange-crowned warbler, a bird that, although common elsewhere, hadn’t been seen in these parts for years. Well and good, but there was nothing orange about its crown or anything else. Ah, yes, was the reply, but during breeding season the male has a few sort-of-orange feathers on top of its head. Perhaps, but why not just call it what it is, the little green warbler?

Which brings up a sore point. Who comes up with these names? The wood stork, for example. They’re impressively big, ugly birds found in wetlands and swamps. Nothing woody or woodsy about them. And the prothonotary warbler. Not only do I not know what it means, I’m not even sure how to pronounce it. Nonetheless, they’re pretty. I hope to see one someday.

Then there is the most-unfortunately named bird in North America, the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Such a natty little guy deserves a much better moniker. They don’t even suck sap. They drill neat rows of holes, mostly in maple trees, and lick up the leaking sap and insects attracted to it. But on second thought, yellow-bellied saplicker is no better. We’ll stick with what we’ve got.

I usually write on matters cultural and political, but not today. Today is more elemental, and probably a lot more important. This is something that air-headed, badly-educated social justice warriors; flint-hearted, steely-eyed conservatives; gun-toting, pot-smoking libertarians; arrogant elites; despairing deplorables; legal aliens; illegal aliens; techies; nerds; snowflakes; populists; cosmopolitans; gay; straight; religious; irreligious; agnostic — all of us, really — can and should agree on:

The world needs all the joy it can get. Let’s feed the birds.

Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is a semi-retired businessman.

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