We watch more than birds

When one puts up a bird feeder, one has simultaneously erected a cat attracter. And a squirrel magnet.

I've recently learned once again that when one puts up a bird feeder, one has simultaneously erected a cat attracter. And a squirrel magnet. And a mini-jungle-struggle of the fittest.

It started when the local feed store had a deal on sunflower seeds. For $5 I bought a bag so big I needed a wheelbarrow to cart it to my car.

I'd read somewhere that sunflower seeds are the basic all-around bird food that would attract the most birds most of the year. I'm still such an amateur at this bird feeding-watching game that I figured I needed the feed that would rope in as many types of birds as possible. Maybe for $5, I could keep a huge flock of them fat all winter long.

My plan was simple: Plant a post in the ground with a board onto which I could easily spread the seeds. It would be located just outside the kitchen window, by the tree.

I envisioned the wife and me peaceably sitting at our little table during leisurely breakfasts, watching the grateful birdies, maybe even hearing them tweet, learning their names via our handy bird book, and being pleasantly surprised when a new species showed up.

It took me only a couple of hours to saw the old fence post, dig the hole, and nail and screw a board with fenders around it to the top of the post. I then poured out my first panfuls of black seeds and waited.

I was a bit disappointed when the birds didn't immediately flock in. In fact, it was a day or two before I saw the first little sparrow come, take a seed, and quickly fly away. He'll probably go tell his buddies, I figured.

Apparently, instead of telling his buddies, he told the squirrels. The next time I saw any action it was a fat little squirrel sitting smack in the middle of the tray, happily munching black seeds.

Mmm, I thought. I could have/should have put up one of those little metal collars around the post to keep the little critters away.

But then I saw the squirrel jump from the feeder onto the adjoining chokecherry bush and then up into the tree. I wasn't sure a collar would have done much good. Oh well, maybe it'll be a bird and squirrel feeder.

Slowly, over the next several weeks, the birds did indeed begin to come, mostly common house sparrows, finches, and a blue jay or two.

I was pleased, although it wasn't the gala grand opening I'd imagined. A few birds would come, peck around a bit, then fly away, and no more visitors would appear for hours on end. Something seemed askew.

Then one day, looking out the back door, I noticed a big gray cat that I'd never seen before nimbly jump over our back gate and saunter toward the bird feeder.

"Hey, hey, hey," I called, opening the door and addressing the cat with the same frustrated tone one might use in addressing a naughty child caught picking the daisies. The old gray cat just looked up at me nonchalantly and continued to make his leisurely way toward his lunch – at my bird feeder.

I scurried through the back door with my "go away, go away" chant, and watched the cat simply scamper quickly to safety under the chokecherry bush – my chokecherry bush – right next to the feeder.

He turned, sat, and looked at me as if wondering whether I might care to join him under there. My scolding him had no effect. It seemed a vantage point with which he had already grown familiar. Hmmm, so that's it.

Trying to keep the neighbor's cat out of one's yard is somewhat akin to trying to keep the wind out. Although I myself have not seen the evidence, my wife assures me that the cat does indeed do what cats do with birds. Also with the squirrels.

This week, as I was sitting in my second-floor study, I heard a commotion outside and looked through the window to see the same gray cat chasing two fat little squirrels up the tree.

The squirrels, although pudgy – perhaps from munching on so many sunflower seeds – were clearly quicker and more nimble than their nemesis, the cat, and thus skittered safely into the cat-proof higher limbs.

The cat stopped at about the level of my window, looking up at the squirrels. I vigorously rapped on the windowpane and was pleased to see that I had so startled the cat that it quickly climbed down out of the tree.

Curiously, however, for the next hour, the squirrels couldn't tear themselves away from looking into my window. It was a bit disconcerting as I worked to make a deadline.

Although early battles have been lost, the bird-feeder war is not yet over. We had a foot of snow last night, and I suspect that today my feathered friends will be quicker to get to the feeder than will the neighbor's cat, which looks as if it might prefer to curl up next to a cozy fire on a day such as this.

I find myself looking through the classified ads of the local paper, under "Pets, dogs, cat chasers." This, alas, is probably how the Thirty Years' War began.

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