Join me as I spy on my wild critters

Notice how that blue jay is like a Frenchman selecting fruit in a market.

By

I live just inside from a live scene that delights me every morning as I sip my cup of coffee and look out from a window seat. I invite you to join me:

It is early morning. You are looking out on deck that jets out from the side of a Vermont mountain all covered with snow. On one side you see tall pines, fattened with snow, their branches curved downward as if bowing to an invisible king. At their feet, wild raspberry bushes and tall goldenrod stems in the meadow bow down, too.

Before you came, while it was still dark, I shoveled a path along the deck, scraped off the wide railing, restocked the suet basket, and sprinkled sunflower seed on the railing and path. The stage is set for the first critters to come for breakfast.

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All is still. Don't move. Whisper.

A chickadee arrives on the railing in the half-light to check things out. From here, you can't see the flock of 30-plus mourning doves that hang out on a nearby maple tree, year round, watching, thinking about sunflower seeds. When they see the chickadee pick up a seed, the flock swoops down to the deck.

They are lining up on the railing; but what a line! It keeps changing. They fly off and come back again to find a better place, maneuvering with the agility of fighter pilots, wings fluttering, heads bobbing, shoving with their round breasts, giving and taking quick stabs at their neighbor. Their legs are so short that they are invisible; it makes them look like toys.

But, oh the beauty of them when they fly: so easy, so graceful! In daylight you'll see the pale blue on the underside of their wings. All at once, quicker than the blink of an eye, the flock vanishes as if someone said a magic word, making them disappear.

As sky lightens, more chickadees arrive for breakfast. Cautious: first they fly to the lilac bush near the railing to make sure the hawks are not yet awake. To know chickadees is to love them. They come within inches of me, scold me with their rasping voices, and eat out of my hand if I can stand still in the cold long enough for them to calm their jittery nerves. They can turn on a dime with movements swifter than the eye can follow. All would qualify as big-league shortstops. Like all my bird customers, they hop around the deck as much as they fly. They bounce straight up into the air like popcorn and land precisely on the sunflower seed of their choice.

The birds and other critters that dine on my deck are as diverse in habits, color, and size as the occupants of a New York City subway at rush hour. Notice that blue jay, how he holds his head high and chooses each seed thoughtfully, the way a Frenchman selects fruit in a market. His outfit reminds me of the bird equivalent of marine formal attire. He takes a jump, selects another seed, then pops over to the lilac bush and gazes off into the forest.

I like the pointy hat on that gray-and-cream titmouse. The streamlined, classy-looking bird with the long beak can pick seeds out of the basket with no trouble at all. That black-and-white bird with the dash of red on his head is a downy woodpecker named "Douglas." Rather than flying onto the railing, he always climbs up the beam that supports it. He is a worrier. When he arrives at the top, he looks all around for a long time before he ventures over to the suet. The pair of cardinals is even more cautious because the male's flashy outfit makes him an easy target; they both stay close to the lilac bush and will vanish if they see movement inside the house.

The two gray squirrels are late, possibly because they come in from deep within the forest; or because they just sleep late in their cozy nests high up in the trees. On their way along the railing, they are sure of themselves, and handsome, with tails flattened down over their backs almost all the way to their ears to keep warm in the zero-degree temperature. But when they spot the fat red-tailed squirrel, only half as big as they are, at the far end of the railing, they stop; their whole demeanor changes, their eyes look sad. They slither down to eat from deck, hoping Mr. Red won't notice them. Mr. Red doesn't believe in sharing. Many times I have seen him clear the whole deck even though his only weapon is an aggressive attitude. As soon as he leaves or turns his back, they all return.

With the exception of Mr. Red, these diverse critters get along together amazingly well. While the doves become excited within their flock and snip at one another, they leave the rest alone. I've never seen any head-on collisions, road rage, fights, or even arguments in all my years of watching. Yet, they are almost constantly in motion, flying in and out at great speed and from every possible angle of approach, springing up in the air, all without warning. Would that we could do as well.

My coffee cup is empty, the seed runs low, the critters are looking elsewhere. Nice to have you. Come again. Farewell.

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