Why birds watch me

Bird watching is not just for academic zealots who collect one glimpse of a pileated woodpecker and 40 mosquito bites; it is also for birds. I first mounted watch in November of 1970. So did the birds.

I began feeding birds outside my New York window so I could keep my own count and observe the behavior of residents and transients. But people reckless enough to dole out 25 pounds a week of what is definitely not chicken feed for 13 winters will have quite a few birds watching them. I have a day shift of approximately 137 regulars, 37 of which are overweight pigeons.

After my first winter of scattering sunflower seeds and cracked corn, I discovered that my hitherto private summer tanning sessions in a previously exclusive summer resort (my backyard) were being spied on.

On the peak of my steep old roof, and on the two flanking promontories as well, under which dwell neighbors unaffected by dreams of lesser yellowlegs and greater scaups, sat three watch-pigeons, one per pinnacle, as still and bright as figureheads in the summer heat. When the tanning oil and I oozed off my lounge chair at 4:30, the pigeons took off - only to return next day.

Individual watch-pigeons have changed over the past 13 years, but the surveillance system has not. It still takes only 171/2 minutes in November for a speckled snoop to alert an entire flock to the opening of the handout season.

I know what it is like to have a watchbird or 30 watching me. I now star in an ongoing spy drama that unfolds just before 4 p.m. of each working day.

As my 13-year-old Nova coughs to a halt and I creak out of it in the clumsy fashion of the wingless, I am cheered, jeered, and knowingly once-overed by a lineup of irreverent pensioners commenting on the inefficiency of the welfare system.

As I sweep up grimy little mounds of sunflower husks and prepare to put out the evening meal, a chickadee eyeballs me from a handy azalea twig, cocking its head and impatiently following every move of my broom. When I finally start to set the table, the chickadee divebombs its dinner, just missing my nose.

Thirteen generations of chickadees now share this one's assurance. All summer long, as they hustle after bugs and other natural stuff, I wonder if they dream of winter and the wonderful resort I run, where they are free to play tag between catered meals.

The same chickadee - or one it trained - also keeps a kind of random bird watch on me at dawn in my kitchen. There is a window without a sill overlooking the feeder - and me. The chickadee pops up (literally) every now and then as if checking on the sunrise of my semester. It does a terrific helicopter imitation, and gives me the eye from way up in the middle of the air. Occasionally, it hands over this responsibility to a titmouse or finch - probably when it has jury duty elsewhere.

Two starlings take the late-afternoon sentinel shift from my TV aerial, whistling raucously as the old Nova and I chug into the garage in time for dinner. Their shiny black eyes are invisible against their shiny black heads, but their orange-yellow bills are as long, sharp, and garish as their call.

The house sparrows watch me en masse from a dense old rhododendron next door, squawking and tumbling in a communal fidget of wings, everybody commenting on me at once from the safe anonymity of the mob.

Whitethroats prefer solos to a chorus, calling out the menu one by one from individual stakeouts in the apple, lilac, or oak.

For the jays, it is insults as usual from the top of the droopy old spruce; their vocabulary is as blue as they are.

Queues of mourning doves appear to hold down the edges of the garage roof as they look for their place cards at the feast. They watch the table - not me. It is only later, on weekend mornings when the sun warms the windowsills at the front of my house, that they cluster on the heated, comfortable ledge to make sure I am dusting and vacuuming the living room properly.

The birds know that breakfast and dinner are assured from November to May, and that if they have something to say to me, 3:45 p.m. is the time and my garage the place. They know that in blizzard time I clear off the first floor windowsills and pile them with seed. They begin landing even before I pull my head in out of the cold.

And when I retire, having ensured the future of the Northern branch of my family (endowing a feeder in perpetuity if all else fails), the call will go out all over the South. As I arrive at my little Okefenokee trailer an hour or so before the sun goes down, two watch-egrets and a little blue heron-spy will already be out there on a handy loblolly, preening their feathers and waiting for me.

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