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A non-nature writer's not-so-deep notions on feeding the birds in the winter

By MELVIN MADDOCKS / February 1, 1984



As we mushed out to the bird feeder, spilling bread crumbs and getting snow inside our boots, we thought how nice it must be to be a nature writer. A nature writer never get snow inside his boots. A nature writer sits by the fire with his Irish setter named William Butler Yeats and recollects in tranquillity, offering you his best profile while he's at it -- the one with the weatherbeaten crinkles at the corner of the eye. The nature writer can look out his window at a bird flying to his bird feeder and give you both the English and the Latin name for it, then follow up with a profound thought or two on the flighty character of human life. All this delivered in a deep manly voice.

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We satisfy certain of these qualifications. We have the crinkles. There's an Irish setter in the neighborhood. We happen to know where we could pick up a couple of profound thoughts cheap, at off-season rates.

The snag is, we lack the precise knowledge that lends a nature writer the authority of a scientist even while he's playing philosopher or poet. It just doesn't do to begin your nature essay with a sentence like: "I saw one of those whatchamacallit birds at the feeder again today."

We know sparrows when we see them. They're the bold littl guys that dive-bomb the feeder before you're properly back in the house, with the snow turning to water inside your boots. The hunger of birds is not anecdotal this winter, Mr Meese.

We know cardinals, too. They show up after the sparrows, a little pompously, as if they would have sent the servants to fetch their meal but it was help's day off.

That's the trouble with not being a nature writer. You keep falling back on the human smile -- seeing things from your point of view. Still, we're fairly into it now, and we'll do our best to note what happened when we finally got our boots off and took our sneaky position behind the kitchen curtain.

First of all, as everybody knows, you wait. No matter how hungry birds may be , they take a long time to approach a feeder, even after that first starved sparrow has executed a successful raid. The rest of the crowd stays in the high branches, circling from tree to tree in systematic reconnaissance, looking like suspicious tourists who've learned awful things about your prices from their Michelin Guide.

In our ignorance, we used to wonder if we were putting out the wrong brand of crumbs. Did our birds prefer rye bread to corn-and-molasses? If so, did they like it with or without pumpernickel seeds? We tormented our household with such questions until somebody provided us with a government publication that included a chapter on "How to Attract Birds." The key sentence began: "I supposethere are a thousan different ways to present food to birds." It was a great relief to learn that even a government nature writer didn't know the answer either.

The thing is, once those starlings -- we think they're starlings -- decide the coast is clear and the price is right, they'll descend by the flock.

Some people like to watch the one or tow birds eating at any given time. We like to watch the six or seven waiting their turn. A few of them get pushy. But a surprising number of them remain affable, flitting from branch to branch and chatting it up, like table-hoppers whose primary purpose in being there is social rather than nutirtional.

The fact is, when it actually comes to eating, birds don't look all that happy. The state of possessing food eems to make them feel vulnerable. They flap their tail feathers. They bat their wings. Their eyes dart from side to side, like diners who left home without their American Express card and aren't quite sure they have the cash to cover it.

There we go, being anthropomorphic again. While we're at it, we may as well suggest that the bird-feeding stations are the fast-food networks -- the Golden Arches -- of the natural world. Birds may hate to be the first one in, but they sure hate to be the last one out. You turn your back for just a minute or two, and the bread crumbs are all gone, and so are the birds, back to their high branches.

A couple of squirrels mop up on the spilled crumbs. A low-slung cat slinks up the driveway in slow motion, doing his best to intimidate them. Not good enough.

That's the way the scene ends. The cat is sort of a marmalade. The squirrels are gray. If you need more information, try the real nature writers, like Thoreau or Loren Eiseley or Edward Hoagland. That's what we do.