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Ralph Gardner Jr: Birds And Bears

Ruby-crowned kinglet
William H. Majoros
Wikimedia Commons
Ruby-crowned kinglet

I read somewhere last winter – I can’t remember whether it was in the informative New York State Department of Environmental Conservation online weekly bulletin, which I subscribe to, or a story in The Columbia Paper, our fine local newspaper – that to avoid attracting bears you shouldn’t hang your bird feeders until November 30th. And you should take them down by April 1st.

In other words, the feeders are allowed to be out, offering the rapture of boisterous birdsong and bustling chickadees, titmouse, cardinals and a dozen other backyard species a measly four months, a self-sacrificing 33% of the year.

I understand the DEC’s point. Birdseed, a concentrated source of calories, attracts bears. It’s best for the bears and healthiest for humans, too, to keep their distance from one another, the bears becoming chronic nuisances if they get accustomed to foraging your backyard instead of the woods.

I had some personal experience with the problem in March of last year. I awoke in the morning to find my pricy designer ceramic birdfeeders reduced to shards. Several additional squirrel proof feeders were mangled; they were never actually squirrel proof, let alone resistant to a hungry and determined black bear.

I suppose one way to think of bears, if you’re wavering about whether to disobey the DEC’s directive, is as the equivalent of five-foot tall squirrels with similar acrobatic skills, sharp teeth and claws.

And then there was my homemade freestanding feeder – I bought it at a garage sale; it was made in someone else’s home – whose sturdy metal pole the bear had bent to the ground.

Lesson learned, though unwilling to go cold turkey on our backyard birds, for the rest of last spring I hung only inexpensive feeders I wouldn’t be heartbroken if the bear destroyed should he, or she, return. Fortunately, it didn’t.

Though a neighbor got a video of the likely culprit on his motion-activated porch camera, the animal approximately the size of an NFL lineman. So it’s probably best we didn’t encounter each other; I doubt I’d have been foolish enough to confront him. Then again, all bets are off when you spend $150 on a birdfeeder.

So come last week, with the indelicacy of our local bears appetites firmly in mind, I thought twice before hanging our feeders.

For about five minutes. I can’t envision an autumn without avian companionship. In fact, it’s as synonymous with fall as raking leaves or trick or treating.

But for almost a full day not a single bird alighted on any of the feeders – including the sparkling new cherry red egg-shaped feeder that replaced the one the bear had smashed to smithereens.

I realize it takes birds a while to discover your feeder. But I felt they were punishing me for not hanging them sooner.

I’m aware that’s an exercise in anthropomorphism. Birds don’t bear grudges, as far as I can tell. Old wives tales to the contrary, they also don’t become dependent on feeders and won’t die if you don’t replenish them.

I once asked an esteemed ornithologist whether it was true that birds will starve if you don’t keep them stocked in sunflower seeds. His answer: “Do you really think birds are that stupid?”

It’s no accident they’ve survived and flourished for millions of years.

So I’m under no illusion that feeding the birds is anything but a selfish enterprise, a self-indulgent exercise in reveling in the beauty of nature.

I occupied their absence Saturday afternoon by adjusting the feeders, hanging them from wires to maximize their visibility from viewing spots inside our house.

And just as I was doing so I spotted a tiny olive gray bird with black wing bands and a delicate beak. It was on an ornamental tree to the side of our house.

By this point in my life, after approximately forty seasons of birdwatching, I’m familiar with pretty much every species that frequents the Hudson Valley’s birdfeeders: in addition to those I’ve already mentioned they include juncos, nuthatches, several varieties of woodpeckers, mourning doves, and gold and purple finch.

But this bird appeared unfamiliar as it flitted from one branch to another, seemingly unintimidated by my presence, though he didn’t help himself to any seed.

Indeed, he indulged me by remaining on the tree while I retrieved my binoculars and allowed me one last look before he flew off. And in that instant I thought I spotted an insinuation of red, a mere fleck, on the top of his head.

I subsequently confirmed my identification in Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies, which described it as a “tiny stub-tailed birdlet” – who said Peterson couldn’t wax poetic – its identifying marks including “a scarlet crown patch.”

In short, the suspect was a ruby-crowned kinglet, a bird perhaps not rare or exotic to these parts but one I’ve spied only a couple of times across the decades.

And our brief communion seemed to hold a message of sorts – in fact I saw it again briefly and confirmed the identification – that miracles are an everyday occurrence if you only allow yourself to be present.

Which may be birdwatching’s greatest gift of all.

And sure enough as soon as I spotted that one visitor it was as if a signal had been given and the usual suspects began to arrive from all directions, led by a band of chickadees. With their return, plummeting temperatures and crisp light filtering through falling leaves autumn had emphatically returned.

Fingers crossed the bears don’t.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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