What Caregiving Taught Me About Feeding Birds
Lessons from vicious snakes, blind finches, bereavement, and dirty politics
I began feeding the birds for my mother. Housebound by the frailties of age and the attitude that going out was too damn much trouble, she needed a connection to the outside world, I thought.
My earliest memory is of my mother and her mother, wielding garden hoes in an attempt to fend off a snake that was attacking a nest of baby birds. I’d just awakened from a nap and stretched myself taller than the windowsill to watch the drama unfolding outside. “Get him, Ethel!” my grandmother shrieked at her namesake.
“You get him, Ethel,” my mom yelled back, addressing her mother by her given name instead of calling her mom. The two Ethels whacked away, and as I recall, emerged victorious although the senior Ethel’s askew babushka made her look somewhat like a pirate. My mom probably lit herself a cigarette right there in the bushes while cooing over the baby birds before she and her mother went on to whatever task they’d meant to do in the first place.
We lived on the backwater of the Mississippi then in a town known for its lax liquor laws and an easier attitude toward certain recreational pursuits that were frowned upon on in its sister city on the other side of the river. I was too young to know about any of that, but I knew about the birds. Cranes soared over the water and we raced out the back door to watch them. If flocks of geese were winging and quacking overhead, we tilted our faces skyward until they were out of sight. Cardinals and redheaded woodpeckers provided thrilling displays of scarlet against the dark bark of a big tree where my father had nailed a wooden fruit crate. It was my mother and I who kept it stocked with seeds and nuts and bread crusts.
Indoors we kept a green parakeet named Jerry. “Jerry is a dirty bird” was his only attempt at conversation. Or maybe his line was, “Jerry is a pretty bird,” and it was my mother who tried to pressure a confession from him while she cleaned up his messes after a free-flying afternoon. I wonder now about our kitchen hygiene since it was there he was allowed out of his cage, an old bed sheet tacked up in the doorway to the living room to keep him from pooping on the upholstered furniture. But nobody died — except Jerry of course, eventually.
Jerry didn’t make it to the next house which was in a tiny town on the more sedate side of the river — a good thing, probably, since we became cat fanciers and often had a half-dozen kittens and cats prowling around. One morning my brother and I found a baby owl on the sidewalk in front of our house. My mother couldn’t locate the nest it might have fallen from, so she put it in a box padded with an old towel on our back porch and closed the door to keep the cats out. I’m sure she took some measure or another to nurse the owl back to health, but in the morning, it was dead.
Years later, when they were both widows, my mother and her twin sister had an apartment with a patio that backed up to a stand of timber. They fed all kinds of birds — including a large vulture that was attracted to a suet cake meant for a pileated woodpecker. I’d had some experience feeding birds by then, but I specialized in finches that frequented a plastic feeder suction-cupped to my breakfast nook window where my young daughters could enjoy them. Decades later, when my mom moved in with me in a different house, I bought a similar feeder and stuck it to our kitchen window there. We remarked on the birds nearly every day. She especially enjoyed the colorful finches, but we welcomed the sparrows too — the white crowned sparrow, the diva of an underrated species with its flashy striped head; and the house sparrow so dapper in its dark cravat.
One of my daughters lived with us part-time while going to grad school. She might have been the one to notice the blind finch being fed by a bird with two good eyes. Over the next few days there were more and more blind finches. “Poor things,” my mother said. “How do they fly?” Fearing that I’d unwittingly contributed to this horror of an avian Equus, I examined the feeder and the potted tree next to it for sharp edges only to find nothing. It was the internet that educated me about bird conjunctivitis and proper feeder hygiene. Jerry the parakeet had pooped in the kitchen sink with no apparent ill effects on us humans, but the internet said I had to wash the bird feeder with soap and a drop of bleach in hot water every week.
My mother took to the new regimen. She could clean anything with the same fervor she employed to dispatch a marauding snake, and over time no new blind finches appeared. Occasionally, more unusual birds added to our pleasure — a towhee, or a warbler, and once we glimpsed a bird such a bright yellow, it might have been an escaped pet canary. The first ring-necked dove appeared some weeks or months after my boyfriend Dan died. It was one of those moments when you believe your deceased beloved has re-appeared or at least delivered to you a sign that you should not despair. The bird watched us with its big dark eyes. Friends were here for dinner. “Look who wants to come inside,” someone said.
Sometime later the dove began bringing a mate, and I’d take a handful of seed and lay it atop the wall between my house and the neighbor’s since these birds seemed too big for the feeder. If I was upstairs and missed their arrival my mother would call, “Your doves are here!” as if dinner guests had just rung the doorbell. The doves would probably still be enjoying my handouts even though my mom is no longer here to announce them, but a squirrel began terrorizing the bird feeder just after the 2017 presidential inauguration.
A tumble-down of decline began then. First one squirrel, whom I called Bannon, and then another, and another. The squirrels could not be dissuaded so I removed the feeder before I went away for a month. When I returned my flowers were infested with some kind of a worm despite the best efforts of the friend caring for them. Since we all know that the early bird gets the worm, I put the bird feeder up again soon after my return. The doves, the sparrows, and the finches came back — but so did a hoard of pigeons, making Jerry’s efforts to defile the kitchen look like child’s play. While the pigeon poop was at least outside, on some surfaces it took a putty knife and boiling water to remove it, and the pigeons’ constant coital-sounding cooing had me wondering if the neighbors should maybe soundproof their bedroom — until I realized this birds and bees thing was really just birds.
Like the squirrels, the pigeons would not be dissuaded. So with strips of that rubbery stuff that you can use as shelf lining or rug padding and some packing tape, I constructed a barrier around my bird feeder that allowed only the smaller birds inside. When it came time to wash the feeder, I had to un-tape all the strips, wash them as well, and then reconstruct the whole thing. A few weeks of that led to a splurge on a new feeder with a cage around it. I called it bird jail at first, but the new feeder is working well enough. The pigeons are now feeding at my neighbor’s unsecured feeder on the other side of the house and pooping over there.
But I worry about the doves. Arriving every couple of days, they flutter around the bird jail, confused. I watch their deep wise eyes as they peer into my house full of worldly comforts, and I think of Dan and my mom and how, just a little more than four years ago, we all were here feasting together at the dining room table. Four years is a long time.
Here in the United States we elect our presidents to a four-year term of office. Four years is a very long time. Twitter storms. Shit storms. Children in cages. So many people who want in while our government tries to keep them out. Viciousness. Greed.
As I wash the bird jail these days, I ponder who belongs inside and who should be kept out, and how I might accommodate the doves without encouraging the pooping pigeons. There aren’t any easy answers to my bird dilemma, but I do recall what my dad said when he began to worry about me during my wild teenage years, “Birds of a feather flock together.”
We’re all defined by the company we keep. I think this applies to presidents and their cronies as well as deceased loved ones. As the dark-eyed doves flap at the feeder they can’t get into, I think of Dan and my mother cut off from all the pleasures of this life, and I hope that they at least have the pleasure of one another’s company. Meanwhile, I still reside in this world of bright finches and singing sparrows, doing whatever I can to fend off pooping pigeons and greedy squirrels of our dirty political world.