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Bird brains

Alabama extension

Our birds are spoiled. I think of them as “our” birds because they spend so much time in the backyard, shopping around the feeders and tantalizing the local cats. But “our” birds have no real loyalty. If the feeders are empty they fly to another house down the street, without a word of apology.

I know we shouldn’t feed wild birds in the summer. We should be teaching them self-sufficiency. But the birds don’t know this, and if they knew it they wouldn’t like it. So our feeders are open 24 hours, 365 days a year, and most of the birds on Long Island seem to have the address. We have our regulars — generations of cardinals and jays, chickadees and titmice, red-bellied woodpeckers, nuthatches, and robins. There are transients and opportunists, like the grackles and starlings, who come uninvited to the party, harass the regular customers, empty the feeders, and leave. Between them, they eat so much that they should be as big as turkeys. And they are choosy about what they eat. The bird seed rule seems to be the same as the cat food rule. The more exotic and expensive and difficult to get it is, the more they love it. Those birds can sense the cost of each seed, I swear, and they won't even bother to peck at the cheap stuff.

The term “bird brain” is used as insult, but sometimes I wonder: who are the real suckers here? The birds are smart enough to know where the food comes from, perching on the windowsills, looking in, pecking at the screens, and tapping on glass doors. Grumpy Birds is not just a video game; it’s a daily reality if the feeders are empty.

Why go to all the trouble and expense feeding birds year-round? It’s simple enough — to watch them, and to help them survive, because more than a quarter of our birds have vanished in the past half century. Birds have always fascinated our flightless race because of their beauty and their freedom. In the play “The Birds” by Aristophanes, almost 2,500 years old, the birds create a great city in the sky and become gods themselves. In the Bible, birds are held up as one of the great beauties of creation. In various times and cultures birds have symbolized enlightenment, hope, and wisdom, as well as good luck, good health, wealth, fertility, love, and truthfulness. Nobody has given birds a bad character, except perhaps Alfred Hitchcock.

Birds are miraculous. Some migrate for thousands of miles — the Arctic tern flies over 50,000 miles every year — using navigational powers that none of us possess or understand. They are more beautiful (with all due respect) than most humans, and they sing. I’m convinced that bird music is the origin of all human music. What else could have inspired it?

So I’m proud of “our birds,” but I do worry about them a little. Are they bringing me closer to nature, or am I bringing them closer to humanity? If the latter, then I should cease and desist. And with the price of bird food constantly going up, new fledglings appearing each season, and with so many beaks to feed, I do sometimes wonder where it will all end.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.