Indiana is architectural limestone country, and it is a matter of considerable local pride that the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., New York's Empire State Building, and other landmarks are elegantly rendered chunks of Hoosier bedrock. Their excavation leaves building-size water-filled holes - like the aptly named Empire State Quarry - and plenty of rock for local construction projects.
No wonder, then, that limestone forms the foundation of our 1913 farmhouse as well as the walk from the road, the steps up to the house, and the pillars and seat ledges of the front porch. The house itself is sided with wood, but certainly not because limestone was scarce.
A long, south-facing window in the kitchen overlooks the six broad steps up from the drive - each a solid block of carbonate rock weighing many hundreds of pounds. One cold winter morning when I was feeling lazy and protective of the warmth I'd generated by building and hovering over the woodstove's fire, I found these steps an opportune place to scatter sunflower seeds. I had only to fill a can from the bag, open the door, extend one arm into the chill for the toss, and watch the contents cascade down, lightly covering all six terraces.
The feeder outside the winter-sealed west window was bare, but the birds waiting for breakfast caught on immediately. I sat in the kitchen rocker overlooking the steps as nuthatches, cardinals, finches, Carolina wrens, chickadees, siskins, and tufted titmice lit by ones, twos, and threes on the just-stocked food pyramid. They sorted themselves out peaceably, avoiding the kind of skirmishes we see at the window feeder. There was no vertical squabbling - the birds on one plane seemed oblivious to those below or above them. I beheld a sociological marvel of cooperative feeding.
The steps quickly became the main canteen - even for the woodpeckers, which cock their heads sideways against the hard surface of the limestone in order to pick up seeds with their chisel-like beaks. Whereas the natural give of the wooden window box permits them to feed face- forward with their familiar staccato rhythm, the stone calls for a more nuanced approach. They don't seem to mind coming at it aslant, given the extra wing room they enjoy in the process.
In fact, the new feeding system has opened new ways of doing things for all the birds. This is the first year that rose-breasted nuthatches have ever, to our knowledge, overwintered on the farm, something we tentatively credit to the largess on the limestone. In stormy weather the smallest visitors shelter in the cracks between the stone "pillows" supporting the slabs. The adjoining square of ground abutting the house is a popular holding area, where on fairer days the birds peck at tentative spring shoots and indulge in dust baths.
Our hens and roosters, ever alert to new possibilities, have discovered the scene as well. Now and then they assert their sizable authority to scatter the diners and pluck up the sunflowers - novel and apparently acceptable fare for chickens. When they finally amble away, the songbirds lose no time regrouping to finish off the leavings.
This is not to say that the window tray has been abandoned. We still carry birdseed around the side of the house to fill it on a periodic basis. Birds still spar and scrap about its limited area, lighting in turns to snatch a seed, all but bouncing away as a competitor arrives. Inside the house our dogs sit on the little sofa by that window, watchingintently, one pane of breath-steamed glass away from the action. That might be another reason so many birds flock to the steps: Who likes to be attended that ardently at a meal?
The seeds disappear so quickly that we've had to limit step-feedings to mornings and evenings. But the steps' twice-a-day transformation to a multitiered aviary has become a keen source of pleasure for us and the birds. The steps, facing due west, catch the last sunlight as the birds gather; and if ever stone looks warm, it is there and then.
The whole idea, born out of sloth one cold morning, is perfectly importable. Any steps might do, but remember: It started with a few big slabs of Indiana limestone ... the stuff of our national landmarks.