I was plugging away at formatting a book last week when Gracie made the odd little noise that means, Bird at the feeder! Ooh, I want me some feathers! Watch me stalk it right through this window!
“Leave it alone, sweetie. Birds are good. We want the birds. Chase the squirrels,” I told her absently, repeating my mantra in this situation. Out of force of habit, I glanced out the kitchen window. On the feeder perched a male rose-breasted grosbeak, smartly turned out in his velvet black tuxedo, white shirtfront, and raspberry colored ascot. He and his mate are returning summer residents, and the first sighting of them always lifts my heart, but it was the other bird, the one that quickly flitted away from the suet feeder, that made me momentarily freeze. A flash of buffy peach, mostly dark gray, long bill, possible white wing bars. No, it couldn’t be, I thought, unwilling to get my hopes up. My friends who live inland fifteen to twenty miles have them, routinely posting pictures to Facebook that cause me intense envy, but in all the time I’ve lived here at 2Dits I’ve only seen two, and neither of them stayed, casual spring migrants who were just passing through.
But hope springs eternal, so I quickly put Gracie in the greenhouse so she couldn’t scare the birds away, and added an orange half to the bird feeder. The female oriole must have been watching from nearby, because she swooped down and started devouring that orange as though she hadn’t seen food for a week. Maybe she hadn’t: our trees are just now leafing out, their tardy start caused by a winter that lingered into April, so the caterpillars that orioles and other insect-eaters would normally be feasting on to rev up their energy for breeding and nesting season are probably non-existant yet.
I took shameless advantage of her hunger to try to get her to stay. On the advice of a friend, I added a small container of homemade grape jelly, which is another favorite food of orioles. Ms. Oriole returned to the feeder several times over the course of the day, working busily at the orange and suet, but ignoring the jelly.
The next morning there was a second female. The girls were not amicable about sharing food resources. but each seemed to be getting enough. The second oriole liked the jelly. “I hope there’s a male around somewhere so these females will stay,” I wrote in my journal.
Prince Charming showed up the next day, hesitantly approaching, lighting for an instant, then retreating to the maple tree when both females chased him away. “Um, I don’t think that’s the course of true love, ladies,” I murmured.
Eventually he managed to get a quick snack of grape jelly and suet, and I got to take a close look at him. A male oriole on a tree branch forty feet away is a compelling flash of brilliant orange and black. A male oriole sitting on a feeder a foot outside your kitchen window is breathtaking, the luminous, pure orange of a tropical sunset and the black of night at sea. This is the George Clooney of birds. The sonofagun is just gorgeous.
It’s a week later, the trees have leafed out in the nice weather, and George and his ladies are gone, I think. They haven’t visited the feeders, at any rate, though they may be up in the canopy of the birches somewhere. I hope so.
Even if the orioles have moved on, though, there is plenty of flash and dazzle around the feeders. The male goldfinches are impossibly yellow, a color so bright and clear it’s as if it hasn’t dulled a bit since Eden. The jays are a jolt of electric blue, the cardinals magnificently red, and the throats of male hummingbirds are iridescent ruby. Seen in sunshine, the back of the magnolia warbler is slaty blue, while his yellow rivals the goldfinch’s.
Scratch any backyard naturalist, and you’ll find a birder, I bet. The birds are an intimate part of my life; they measure the seasons, from the doughty cheer of chickadees in a winter snowstorm, through the industry of robins hunting worms in spring, to the exuberance of song sparrows in summer, ending with the gawkiness of the wild turkeys who come in the fall to stretch up and peck at the overripe apples I leave hanging for them on the lowest branches.
The sound of birdsong has got to be one of the best gifts God ever gave Himself. Working in the garden is like being in the orchestra pit when all the individual musicians are tuning up. The robins sing loud phrases with plenty of chips and cheeps thrown in. Catbird is a virtuoso, master mimic of everybody else’s song, and he runs through his entire repertoire, stringing them together in long arias that last several minutes before he starts to repeat the run. (Occasionally he’ll toss in an uncanny imitation of a screen door’s rusty hinges, or the clinking of my spoon on the glass when I stir my iced coffee.) Hummingbirds squeak as they buzz me when I’m working too near the bee balm that they have claimed as their own. Out in the woods, the thrush plays his breathy flute, and high overhead ospreys scream their high-pitched keek! as they circle and hover in their mating displays. The blue jay, who is a pretty fair mimic himself, likes to perch right above my head in the chokecherry tree and let go with a softer imitation of an osprey’s shriek to make me jump. I think one of these days he’s going to learn to mimic the phrase I say to him on such occasions. God knows, we practice it often enough.
I don’t keep a Life List like some dedicated birders do–I’m not that organized. But I do keep a mental wish list of birds I haven’t seen yet here on the Cape, or have seen only rarely and would love to see again. Orioles, scarlet tanagers, and evening grosbeaks are all on that list, but now that I’ve had the satisfaction of hosting some orioles for a few days, my cap is set at attracting a bluebird. I just know they’re out there…