TV Lovers Tune Into The World Of Wings

When we cut off our television, I was convinced we were also cutting off our nose to spite our face. Although my husband and I had talked of pulling the plug for years, I wasn't quite ready to find out the answer to the question, "Is there life after cable?"

"Maybe we could just wait until it quits raining," I suggested. And then, "until after the start of the new viewing season," and "Just until we find out if he kisses her."

But the day finally came when I ran out of excuses and, grudgingly, agreed.

Life is different when you have to entertain yourself. I found myself doing such things as rearranging our bookshelves, cleaning out the kitchen cupboards. Deep within our closet, I found the bird feeder we'd been given for Christmas. It had been stormy then, and I'd stuck it away and forgotten about it.

"Huh," I said, shrugging. "Might as well give it a try." If life were like the movies, I should have heard a voice at that moment. It would have intoned solemnly, "If you fill it, they will come."

For come they have: rust and charcoal black-headed grosbeaks, with their beige wives. Bullying blue stellar jays. Male house finches, like wild parakeets with their scarlet heads. Goldfinches by the dozens. A pair of cowbirds. And what are known around our house as LBBs (little brown birds). Our wild fuschias draw another crowd: hummingbirds who, like superheroes in comic books, are a speck in the distance one second and dive-bombing their enemies at the window the next.

I glanced up from my book one afternoon. "What on earth?" I heard myself say. There was a very large bird precariously balanced on the feeder, which was tipped under its weight. Its back was brownish-gray, speckled with black. When it flew away, I caught a flash of brilliant scarlet beneath his wings. Heart thudding in excitement, I grabbed for my bird books. A woodpecker! To be more precise, a red-shafted flicker.

One morning I was showering when I became aware of a sound beyond the drumming of the water.

"Honey!" My husband hissed. "Come down here!"

"I'm taking a shower," I said.

Next thing I knew, a male hand snaked into the shower and shut off the water. "Come on," he insisted. "Now!"

"All right, all right." I dried off and grabbed my robe, muttering through clenched teeth, "This had better be good."

It was. Two huge gray birds with purple heads - band-tailed pigeons, we found out later - were perched on the feeder, side by side, companionably munching away.

We do watch an occasional video these days. But one of us is constantly turning to peer out the window.

"Any bird action?" the other will ask, hopefully. And, if there is, we stop the video to check it out. Sometimes we never do get back to the movie. Who would have dreamed it could be more fascinating to tune in to real life?

In our house, the unexpected sighting of an evening grosbeak gets about the same reaction as if, say, Paul Newman were to stroll through our kitchen door. "I can't believe it!" we say. "Wasn't he absolutely gorgeous? He looks just the way he does in the pictures!"

When one of us comes home from work, the first question is, "Did you see anything good at the feeder today?"

RECENTLY, we rearranged our living room around our new entertainment center - the bird feeder. The couches have been turned to face the view. The lace curtains we had been peeking around and through are history. Now we have the best seats in the house for the show.

Speaking of show, there are some of the elements of a good movie out there. We have the bad guys, like the cowbird who, according to my bird book, removes eggs from other birds' nests and replaces them with her own. The baby cowbird is raised by its stepparent, sometimes at the expense of its stepsiblings.

We have mysteries, like the flicker puzzle. Nothing we have read indicates a flicker would eat birdseed. But ours does.

We have relationships: hummers playing with goldfinches; parents apparently giving bird lessons to their young. And, although the stellar jays - who definitely have an attitude - throw their weight around with great gusto, an amazing variety of birds tolerate eating together beak to beak: goldfinches and house finches with grosbeaks and cowbirds and LBBs. And, of course, our show is nothing less than a musical extravaganza.

You know those kids' puzzles, the ones with hidden objects in an everyday scene? That's what our yard has become. A fluttering yellow leaf is really a brilliant goldfinch. A small round pine cone turns into a scavenging wren. A swaying rhododendron branch, barely caught in the corner of my eye, is actually two tuxedo-suited quail strolling through.

"So," my husband asked me the other evening, as I was counting the goldfinches scratching for seed in the lawn, "are you ready to get the cable hooked back up?"

"Nah," I said. I squinted up into our cedar tree, hoping to get a glimpse of the flicker before I went to bed. "I guess I can hold off a while longer."

I didn't need to see his face to know he was smiling.

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