An Economy For The Birds

Across The Savannah

Hummer In Flight

Photo by Tom Poland

I was on my way to buy sunflower seeds for my bird feeders, which the squirrels, especially, appreciate. Along the way, a vagabond perched near the interstate holding a sign, “Will work for food.” I see guys like him a lot. Usually, they come in pairs and work both sides of the intersection. I hear it’s a scam.

I drove on with no guilt about feeding birds, not humans. I suspect the drifters had birds in mind too—Old Crow and maybe dreams of Wild Turkey flitting through their scalawag heads, if they “worked for food” long enough.

At Lowes, I was checking out 20-pound sacks of sunflower seeds when a fellow in a business suit walked up. “We’re spending money on birds and a lot of folks are out of work,” I said. He laughed and said, “Times are tough all right unless you’re a bird”

That’s for sure. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that 53.4 million Americans drop nearly $5 billion a year to see nature in action. That ain’t chicken feed, folks.

My backyard hosts two birdbaths, three feeders, a hummingbird feeder, and a fountain. Running water sounds like a dinner bell to birds and when the fountain cascades rivulets, a feathery ensemble descends on my yard. Cardinals, finches, orioles, woodpeckers, brown thrashers, and other birds arrive in such plentitude my backyard becomes a wildlife refuge.

I work at home and filling the feeders brings entertainment and now and then a lesson about life. Besides, birds and I are old friends. We share a professional connection of sorts that goes back nearly 30 years. Watching birds provides a break from writing these days, but in the past birds meant work. As a cinematographer in the ’80s, a series of films regularly took me to Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge off the coast near Charleston.

Long days … I’d board a U.S. Department of Interior Boston Whaler at McClellanville well before dawn and spend the morning filming shorebird rookeries on small, low-slung islands. Rookery islands are flat, sandy places. Little vegetation grows there. A mere scrape in the sand suffices for a nest. The speckled eggs look just like sand. I stepped carefully.

Rookery islands are wild and pristine. They hold no trappings from civilization. They truly are for the birds. A beautiful place, sun splashed, wild, and desolate. And desolation is where the business of raising fledglings best takes place. The Department of Interior owns this territory; it’ll never become another Hilton Head. You’ll never see pot-bellied men in golf carts riding along where baby pelicans grew up. It’ll remain barren yet full of life: a ravishing contradiction.

Back in the ’80s, I took that natural splendor for granted. It was a job. Work. Now, reminiscing with the benefit of a bit more maturity, I realize I was in a place magical and majestic—bird land—a bird watcher’s paradise. Islands with names like Cape and Bulls sit off the Lowcountry just beyond where the edge of North America slips beneath the Atlantic. Farther out beyond the islands, the warm Gulf Stream courses through the sea. Life’s basic elements abound here.

The ancients believed the world consisted of air, fire, water, and earth. Perhaps they had their own feathery islands in mind. On islands such as Cape Romain’s, the sun bears down with the fury that melted Icarus’s wings even as it incubates eggs destined to fly in another life of sorts. And there, in those scrapes my feet avoided, the sand was nothing more than the remnants of ancient mountains, long washed into the Atlantic and built up into isles. There I was walking across aged peaks shooting scenes for TV and film.

It seems like only yesterday that I trained my Arriflex on pelicans crashing into the sea in search of menhaden. There in that sun-bleached land, I loaded film magazines and shot footage of baby pelicans, brownish-purple blobs with bobbing heads and oversized beaks. At day’s end, the sun sinking over the continent, the U.S. Department of Interior guide would take me back to the mainland. Hot, hungry, and tired, I made the long drive back to the office and sent film off for processing.

Looking back, avian moments stand out from my bird-filming years. Seeing my first Bald Eagle wheeling overhead, its regal white head flashing in the sun. Spotting the oh-so-rare Swallow-tailed Kite (the Arriflex was cased, useless when I needed it most). Filming baby wood ducks leaping on high from a tree cavity, bouncing off the forest floor like yellow tennis balls, then forming a fluffy, yellow train to follow mom to a beaver pond. Their inaugural swim waited.

That was then. Backyard bird life is tamer by far. One moment, though, stands out. A tender moment. One morning a bird crashed into my sliding glass door with a sickening thud. Opening the door to my deck, I saw a female house finch on her back, feathers ruffled on her right wing. Spasms racked her little finch body. I was sure she was dying.

I reached down to pick her up, and the sight of me was enough to get her to fly. Somehow she flew to a nearby pine, latched onto a small limb, and hung upside down by one foot. Her redheaded mate flew to her side at once, chirping in a way that sounded like pleading. “C’mon, don’t die. You can make it. Please don’t leave me.”

The male kept nudging her with his beak and pacing the limb she clung to. I expected her to drop in a freefall of death. After what seemed an eternity, she struggled and managed to stand upright on the limb, wobbly at best. Her mate nudged her more, chirped louder, and after about 10 minutes, the pair flew away. Later that afternoon I spotted her, wing feathers still askew, at a feeder, with her mate right beside her. All seemed right in her world again. Mine too.

That old expression, “for the birds,” generally carries a touch of sarcasm implying something is no good. “This economy is for the birds.” Well, there’s nothing worthless about feeding and watching birds even in tough times. The best thing about my backyard birds is that it’s not work. I don’t have to cart heavy equipment around, keep batteries charged, avoid camera tilt, or unload film magazines. I don’t make any money doing it; in fact, it’s just the opposite, but it’s fun. And sometimes quite revealing.

Email Tom with feedback and ideas for new columns.

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