High-Flying Drama Enlivens Our Backyard

The longer I watch birds, the more obvious it is to me: They're human. Or at least their personalities seem to be.

My husband and I sat side by side on the couch the other day and watched a male evening grosbeak feed a young one. The baby was beige-ish and fluttered his black-and-white wings as he nipped tidbits of seed from his father's beak. They say nurturing dads are hot in romance novels these days; the same can be said for our own backyard.

"Except for the color, he looks like his old man," my husband said.

"Big family resemblance," I agreed. "Hear the dad cheeping after he gives the kid each bite? He's prompting him: 'OK now - what do you say?' "

For the entire conversation, our eyes were riveted to the scene outside the window. We watch the birds with the same rapt attention of any "Friends" or "ER" fan. And, like any devoted watchers, we know whom to hiss at and whom to root for. Instead of "The X-Files," we have a long-running series called "The Brown-Headed Cowbirds." According to rumor (and also the several bird books littering the living room), brown-headed cowbirds abandon their eggs in the nests of other birds. The other birds raise the chicks.

Last year, we had two adult cowbirds - a sleek black male and a cocoa-brown female - "doing lunch" here. Those two obviously gave the Shannon Cafe rave reviews.

My husband counted them at the feeder this year: "Eleven, 12 ... 13 males! And tons of females." He shook his head. "That's something about the females laying their eggs in other birds' nests. Weird."

We watched them scratch at the seed in the grass. The clock ticked quietly. I took a sip of tea.

Suddenly, my husband jumped up, ran to the window, and began pounding on it and yelling, "Get out of here! Get out!"

I don't know who was more shocked - the birds, swarming for the heavens in a brown-and-black cloud, or me, shrinking into the sofa cushion.

"What on earth?!" I exclaimed, my heart thumping.

"I don't like what they do," my husband said, sheepishly. "They're irresponsible."

As he settled down beside me, a quail couple promenaded through, somehow giving the impression of strolling arm in arm.

"Shall we?" I'm sure "Henry" said to "Stella." And she clutched his little bird elbow and out they went for their evening constitutional: across the lawn, through the forget-me-nots, a little snack of sunflower seeds, and then home to bed.

"Aww...." my husband said. "That's heartwarming."

"I wonder how long they've been marr... together?" I mused. The very coupleness of Henry and Stella leads me to picture respectful friendship, mutual joy, sorrows halved by sharing, comfort - all the wonders of married life.

At our house, a bird's reputation can turn on a pinfeather. Last year when we began watching, we were ecstatic to discover a few huge gray and iridescent birds sneaking in to nibble at the feeder. Hands atremble with excitement, we thumbed our bird books. "Band-tailed pigeons!" we said in our "aha!" voices.

The band tails were extremely shy, we found. The slightest motion of a cup or turning of a head was enough to make them churn up through the air, their wings sounding like thunderous applause. And so we were very, very careful whenever we spotted one. Slo-o-o-wly, we would maneuver our binoculars to our eyes.

One morning, I glanced into the living room and stopped short, shocked to my very core. All six feet, three inches of husband was slithering across the living-room carpet, like an enormous blue-jeaned snake.

"Honey?" I tried to sound calm. "Are you OK?"

"Shh...." he whispered out of the side of his mustache. "Band tails...."

This year, a whole herd of band-tails showed up in our fir trees. We were thrilled. But then a wildlife expert we consulted about a lurking skunk spoke some fateful words. "Bird feeders? You're going to attract pests," he warned. "Skunks, rats, and those horrible band-tailed pigeons."

"We have those," my husband said.

"They'll eat all the seed, scare off the other birds, and make a terrible mess. They're the worst."

Fickle are the opinions of those who heed the reputation-sullying words of others, at least in this case. The two of us no longer slither and softly whisper when we see these particular fair-feathered fowls. Now we wave our arms and knock on the windows and holler, "Save some for the grosbeaks, you gluttons!"

And sometimes they even glance up from the feeder for a second or two before going back to the buffet. The truth is, those pigeons aren't nearly as bashful as they used to be.

EARLY one morning, I heard, "Come and look!" When I got to the kitchen window, I saw an LBB (little brown bird) feeding a beige bird that was doing the typical "I'm a baby bird!" wing flutter. But the odd thing was, the one being fed was at least twice the size of the feeding bird.


We scratched our heads. Theories proliferated over the pasta that night. Big Baby Bird was an impostor - a lazy, good-for-nothing adult. The birds had decided to switch roles for the day. The LBB was confused ... or not very bright ... or too kind-hearted not to be taken in by a shoddy bird scam ... or so lonely she didn't care.

It wasn't until we were watching the brown-headed cowbirds one day that my husband snapped his fingers. "Big Baby Bird is a real baby, but he's a cowbird!" he exclaimed.

We grinned at each other in relief. Mystery solved. The LBB parent, having raised the cowbird from egghood, considered the baby to be her own. Which, of course, was absolutely true at that point.

I was viewing the goldfinches at their breakfast this morning, when I had the odd sensation that I was being stared at. I looked around. A big robin sat under the cedar, gazing fixedly at me through the window. You could say he was taking advantage of a bird's-eye view.

Suddenly, I had the eerie feeling I could read his thoughts: "Why don't these no-feathered creatures do something worthwhile, like hunt worms or build nests or something? But noooo, they just sit and stare out the window. Talk about lazy...."

Uh-oh. Looks as if I could end up with a bad bird rep rap.

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