I was in a reverie recently while watching the backyard birds when I recalled making a home visit some years ago on a retired shrimper who was wheelchair-bound from a stroke. He was severely depressed over his disability, was withdrawn and indifferent to everything and everyone. Three antidepressants failed to lift him from his emotional ditch. Then one day his granddaughter hung a bird feeder by the picture window where he sat brooding, looking out over a nearby bayou. As more birds came to the feeder his mood changed and in a couple of weeks he returned to his old self. He even took to reading about songbirds.
It would be naïve to believe others might relieve their depression by merely watching birds. But there was something about watching the songbirds to which Mr. Q. responded. What was it, and what is it?
Hatched for some reason from its dormant state, I recently developed a new interest in birds, even to the point of taking close-up photographs. We’ve always had a couple of feeders in the backyard but we now have six feeders that are visited by red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, blue jays, doves, a red-bellied woodpecker, a grackle, an American robin, as well as the pesky, and unwanted, thieving squirrel. They all get along but they do adhere to a hierarchy at the feeder with the bigger birds pushing off the smaller ones. We see more birds now than years past, and as a result less mosquitoes and flies. In fact, no mosquitoes and flies.
One day, last month, after seeing a YouTube video of a guy hand-feeding peanuts to a blue jay, I placed peanuts on top of the planks of our dog-eared wooden fence. Through trial and error I’ve now surmised that there are probably three families of jays consisting of four to six members each that visit our backyard. Each morning and evening, the jays wait in the nearby bushes while I place the peanuts on the fence. Then as I walk away, all fourteen jays descend in rapid-fire succession, one-by-one or two-by-two, to quickly retrieve their respective peanut then fly off in one of two directions. All done within two minutes. It’s an interesting sight and is mesmerizing and exciting at the same time.
Within three to five minutes some or all of them return for a second helping, perching themselves on the fence, and not finding any peanuts there, swoop down to retrieve them from the yard where I toss them from my patio nearby. This morning and evening routine is a project in stillness, and some days solitude, lest the jays and others be spooked by any sudden motion. Recently they have braved to come as close as ten feet from where I sit, if they are hungry or greedy enough for the second peanut, then scurry off to perhaps cache the second peanut, which jays are wont to do. The hope and goal is to feed one or more by hand.
In the same way that a person who’s been habituated becomes predictable, the jays have become so too. They arrive from wherever they live to the bushes as I make a characteristic whistle. The larger jays, presumably males, tend to eat from the right and the smaller ones from the left. They don’t know it but they all have names: Chi Chi, Jack, Fluff, Mi Mi, Big Daddy, Weeny, Bully, Taylor, Polly, Ricky, Pepper, Bushy, Bob, and Elk. My wife won’t let me write their names on the respective boards from which they pick their peanuts, but when she ain’t looking I’m going to make a quick grab of the Sharpie. (He’s gone to the birds.)
Typically, a new interest moves one to read about the new topic. And so it is I’ve learned that cardinals have a separate vocal cord-like structure called a syrinx in their windpipe above each lung which allows them to sing two separate songs at the same time, or create combinations of sounds, songs or trills using each lung individually, simultaneously (If only Luciano Pavarotti had such anatomical equipment.) And then the blue jay, scientists tell us, is not really blue but only appears to be blue. There is no blue pigment in the blue jay’s feathers. The blue color is caused by the architecture of the feather such that it allows the melanocyte cell to act as a prism allowing the blue color to come through.
If you’re a bird lover or watcher and are feeding them you may want to consider becoming a citizen scientist and join Cornell University’s Ornithology Department’s project in collecting data on birds. You can download the app “Ebird” which allows you to easily make watch lists and send it to Cornell. It’s easy, fun, and painless. I’ve sent up a few. You do it on your own time and when convenient. Plus, you join the millions of bird watchers worldwide that are doing this very thing and helping to contribute to conservation and health of birds around the world.
Otherwise, if your feathers are ruffled, and even if they aren’t, consider attracting and watching birds in your backyard. It’s relaxing and de-stressing. It may even move you to get rid of that cat (just kidding) or keep you from breaking the law. And if bird-watching is too much of a challenge then think about walking over and smelling them roses.