Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Birds of a Feather, and Not

To Feed or Not to Feed?

Events make sense only in context. But understanding
the context of a bird presents some challenges.

Events make sense only in context. Sometimes the term context is used by naturalists to mean the environment or “field” in which a creature makes its living naturally. A caged parrot is out of context, then, and unable to teach us much about being a parrot. A lion or gorilla in a zoo may exhibit some genetically encoded behavior and physiology, but mostly they teach us how caged animals interact with each other, their keepers, and the observing public. Understanding context can be challenging.

One November day, after a rain, I biked out of my drive and saw three long-tailed birds feeding off the crushed black walnuts in the street. Two were black, white, and blue-green (magpies) and the other, entirely green. When I got closer they flew off. “Parrot,” I said to myself regarding that flash of green—the best I could do at the moment.

Bird on a wire: Yellow-billed magpies and rose-ringed parakeets both prefer views from on high. (magpie photo by  Greg Schechter)

Bird on a wire: Yellow-billed magpies and rose-ringed parakeets both prefer views from on high. (magpie photo by Greg Schechter)

Later Waldo (as we named him) started hanging around my feeder and I was able to observe him more closely and check with my bird books. Only the new (1983) National Geographic guide included Waldo’s kind: rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri). The length of a magpie, the bird is green in head and body, with a plum colored beak and a black gash cutting from behind the eye, down under and across the throat–-a mature male.

“What’s the story?” we often ask when a surprise like Waldo arrives. According to my book, small, resident populations of escapees exist around Miami and Los Angeles. That makes sense to a birder; this bird probably made it here from L.A. A birders’ context can make sense of a “parrot” in the Central Valley. The story here is a naturalist’s one, about native birds, exotics, and escapees with little chance of taking over and “naturalizing.”

The spread of starlings across the U.S. would be the flip side of the amusing escaped-parrot tale. When Eugene Scheffland let loose European starlings in Central Park in 1890 and 1891, determined to introduce into North America every bird mentioned by Shakespeare, that context soon grew into a nightmarish 150 million birds.

To me feral parrots and parakeets look out-of–place, out of context. And the lone one at my feeder would strike me, when I was in the mood, as lonely, a kind of brother or ally. There we were in rainy November getting used to each other across the feeder, getting to know which moves I make that will cause alarm and which don’t mean a thing.

Waldo created his own context, for he seemed quite at home with magpies: They would feed together, fly together, and soak up the sun together high in the elm. I imagine that it’s possible for a bird to be “lonely” just as a puppy might, or a cat, but being unique in a given setting or even geographically misplaced is not the same as being alone, or a loner. My parakeet friend took himself to be part of a flock, the rest of which was magpies.

Waldo flew with the magpies, ate with them, and enjoyed the sun with them high in the elm. (photo of yellow-billed magpies in flight in Sacramento by  Robert Couse-Baker)

Waldo ate, flew, and enjoyed the sun with the magpies high in the elm. (photo of yellow-billed magpies in flight in Sacramento by Robert Couse-Baker)

Then there is the context I helped create by opening the bag of birdseed in the first place.

Red, white, yellow millets. Grain sorghum. Sunflower seed. Wheat. Other ingredients are listed on the label for Pretty Boy Wild Bird Food, packaged appropriately enough by the Audubon Park Co. of Akron, Colorado, but I don’t need to read more.

The bird seed label takes me back 65 years to Minnesota where as a boy I raised racing pigeons and fed them a mix of peas, corn, and “Kaffir corn,” the ancestor of the domesticated sorghum in the Pretty Boy mix. The now-taboo name sounds exotic still, with its echoes of Africa, of tensions between Moslems and “unbelievers” (the Arabic kafir, “infidel,” being the present participle of kafara, “to deny, be skeptical”). Sorghum, by comparison, is as downhome as a field of cultivated grain.

What’s in the name?

Combining “Pretty Boy” and “Wild Bird” on the label is likewise jarring, invoking caged canaries on the one hand and free birds on the other. This mixed imagery seems intentional. The cartoon-style red bird on the label underlines the “pet bird” tenor of the message: feed wild birds to lure them into your yard so you can enjoy them close up.

Packed into this label, then, are two ways to care about birds—let them fly free to be pursued by us birders using binoculars or cameras, or capture them somehow and use them to decorate our lives. The invocation of artist John James Audubon on the label, the company name, throws in on the side of captive beauty and decoration; Audubon commonly shot the wild birds of America for specimens and then arranged their dead bodies in “life-like” poses to create his portraits.

This too is in part a matter of context. Do wild birds in the neighborhood tell a story of abundance, variety, and plenitude? Do they speak of God’s creation and the usefulness of birds and beasts and plants to humankind? Will there come a day when lions lie down with lambs and all of nature becomes a Peaceable Kingdom, as the Bible says in Isaiah 11:6 -9?

Here's Waldo! Actually, this free-living rose-ringed parakeet lives in the wilds of Brussels. (photo by Frank Vasson)

Here’s Waldo! Actually, this rose-ringed parakeet lives in the wilds of Brussels. (photo by Frank Vasson)

Or do we as naturalists imagine wild birds as actors and agents in the dynamic natural drama described by Darwin? We may feel kind to them and protective, but a law much wilder than neighborhood kinship underlies our relationship.

There is contention even among birdwatchers about context. Some birders feed back yard birds for their own listening and visual pleasure, and others oppose feeding absolutely, on sanitary and ethological grounds. They condemn those misled sentimentalists who lure wild birds into urban ghettoes to eat amid mites, germs, and scat, not to mention danger from cats.

Both feeders and non-feeders approach birds as categories and kinds, as species—white-crowns, towhees, nuthatches—rather than as individual beings. Rarely do we birders know a particular bird, such as the white-crowned sparrow at my feeder some years ago with a unique, aberrant white tail feather, or the blackbird with only one eye.

The rose-ringed parakeet who showed up one day at our feeder in Davis was surely an escaped exotic, but we named him and looked for him each day for two years until finally Waldo came no more, the victim of colder weather, we assumed.

Were it not for feeders, most birders would never get the chance for such day-by-day familiarity with individuals.

Like Waldo.


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