Bye, Bye Birdies

This grackle has been to the beauty parlor.

Birdlife International, National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology declared 2018 the Year of the Bird.

But there has been no celebrating at my house. All the good birds abandoned my backyard months ago. The black-oil sunflower seeds and the nyjer thistle are still at September levels.

I have missed the goldfinches, with their lemon drop acrobatics as they swing upside down to eat, but frankly, the rest of my bird population this year was a tough crew and hard to love. Maybe it was the newfangled, squirrel-proof sunflower seed feeder with only four perches. Last year, a peaceable kingdom reigned outside my window: scarlet cardinals, sky-blue jays, black-capped chickadees, plump pewter-colored tufted titmice, purple finches, and their cousins the house finches, all sharing at an open table of seeds. This year, the drab house finches showed their true colors, engaging in fierce selfish fighting at the new feeder. With dive-bombing and beak-biting, the house finches claimed all four perches for themselves.

The goldfinches and chickadees retreated to the special feeder with the thistle. The only birds that made an effort to stick up for themselves were a couple of cardinals. And they had their own problems. One Narcissus of a cardinal was bewitched by his reflection in my Subaru’s side-view mirror, falling into a love-hate relationship with himself. Perched precariously on the narrow edge where window meets car door, he would stare and strut, peer and preen, then scuttle around behind the mirror to find that other bird. “Where did he go?” Back to the front he would come and… “Hey, there’s that bird again! Why’d he run away? I’ll show him. I’ll peck him to death!” He would then proceed to maniacally rat-a-tat-tat on the mirror, leaving messy marks to be wiped off if I wanted to see anything coming up behind me on the left.

The other cardinal was bald. Not only had his crest fallen, so had every other feather on his head. Out of a handsome body with all its requisite scarlet finery poked a small gunmetal gray ball bearing with a beak. To the naked eye, the cardinal just looked odd, like a wizened old man wearing an oversized raccoon coat or the Philly Phanatic forgetting to put on his costume’s head. But through binoculars, it was a different sight. The cardinal was terrifying: the rough blood red feathers became a cloak of evil, his barren skull slick, his obsidian eyes glinting, his over-sized beak now a lethal weapon set on carnage. No Christmas card charmer here. More like an enforcer for Jabba the Hutt.

In August the grackles arrived, two nasty characters who immediately established themselves as the highest on the pecking order, even though they used the lowest of the perches. Grackles are not pretty birds. They look like leaked motor oil, greasy collections of dark purple, green, black, colors of a bruise that won’t heal, with two yellow specks for eyes, as though someone had dropped a couple plastic buttons from a cheap arcade toy onto the garage floor.

Such was my crowd. Fractious finches. Kooky cardinals. Grim-faced grackles. The occasional goldfinch or chickadee visiting, but not staying around. A good host, I still served regular meals anyway.

Then in September I went on vacation. I carefully filled all the birdfeeders before I left, as I have always done. I returned to find the feeders still full, but no birds. And so it has remained.

So much for the Year of the Bird. At least it’s almost over. Maybe 2019 will be the Year of the Squirrel. I’ve got plenty of those.


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