flash of red outside my kitchen window sends me running for my
binoculars. I've just hung the newest feeder, thrilled that it's already
attracting attention. Those circus clowns - the blue jays - float in quickly
to search for choice peanuts, scattering seed with abandon. Doves, waiting
on the ground below, toddle around like Charlie Chaplin pecking at the
millet. My crimson friend, the male cardinal, darts in to select a fat
sunflower seed, then retreats to a nearby twig to savour it. His mate, a
little bolder, mixes easily with the other birds on the ground.
Endless varieties of birds come to feeding stations and a supply of
peanuts and suet certainly entices these avian creatures to practise their
acrobatics closer to my window. A small pair of binoculars and a good
birding book, one with drawings not photographs for easiest identification,
adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of what has become one of the most
popular pastimes for all age groups and the fastest-growing hobby of
For many people, birding can become more than a passive activity for
spectators. Many people become so interested they become involved with
recovery efforts for endangered birds such as the Peregrine Falcon or the
Bald Eagle or participate in studies on flight habits. Others build homes
Three years ago, one of my neighbours began building and setting up
bluebird nesting boxes. To date, he has installed more than 200 around the
neighbourhood, and as a result has increased the bluebird population by at
least 20 every year since. The first year, a fellow birder began banding the
tiny fledglings, as part of a North American study. Holding one of those
tiny puffs of blue in my hand as I helped her band five babies in a nest box
near my barn was a profound experience.
Male bluebirds arrive first in spring, such a startling blue in the sunlight
they look like a piece of the sky. They check out first one box then
another, perching for a day or so on the roof, popping in and out of the
tiny entrance until finally satisfied that it's the right spot. Last year,
three males vied for one box, and then spent a lot of time chasing one
another away when the females showed up.
Tree swallows come north about the same time as the blue birds. They also
like nest boxes and are fierce territorial defenders against sparrows or
other invaders. They will even help neighbouring bluebirds defend their
home. I've seen many an aerial battle as these swift turquoise and emerald
fighters swoop and dive to run off potential poachers. The female
bluebirds cheer them from a perch on top of their box.
Many people, intent on seeking the rare or hard-to-find birds, go with
naturalist clubs on field trips or on special tours with expert guides.
Several tour companies now cater to bird watchers year round, taking
aficionados to exotic spots such as Costa Rica, where I was taken by
surprise by an enchanting pair of blazing red macaws making their daily pass
along the jungle river.
But I still get the biggest kick out of my own little feeders. Last fall, I
counted 70 mourning doves, and 35 juncoes at one time. Regulars include six
jays, a host of chickadees, fox and tree sparrows, and lots of finches,
mostly raspberry jam -coloured house finches. Every once in a while, a
cloud of goldfinches whirls in. One afternoon, I spied a wild turkey
scratching under a feeder. A ring-necked pheasant is also a sometime
This number of birds naturally attracts predators and a small group of
hawks patrols my feeders regularly. One afternoon, a red-tailed hawk sailed
around the house three times like some huge stealth bomber sending the
little birds fleeing into the bushes. And when the Cooper's hawk dives from
some unknown height, the explosion leaves many feathers drifting to the
ground while the hunter perches in the tree, head swiveling, eyes gleaming
More common predators are cats who destroy more birds than any hawk, fox
or owl. My cats are not allowed out until all babies have taken flight, and
definitely not in the winter when feeders are full. Belling simply does not
work with smart cats - they can move so stealthily the bell won't ring until
it's too late.
Barbara Selkirk is a former journalist, public relations consultant
and free-lance writer living on a farm in southern Ontario.