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My Fine-Feathered Friends

By Tom Poland
web posted May 22, 2015

LIFE DOWN SOUTH Ė If you like to watch birds does that mean you are really old? I used to think so. Back when I worked at South Carolina Wildlife we staffers talked a bit disparagingly about birders, as birdwatchers are known. A stereotypical bird watcher, we said, had white hair, binoculars, a field guide, and tromped through the wilds wearing one of those pith helmets Marlin Perkins occasionally donned. We were in our thirties and birders to us seemed really old. You know, like in their sixties. Well, the ravages of time get us all, donít they.
Iíll let you decide if watching birds means youíre approaching the end of the line, but Iíll say this: I get immense pleasure from watching birds. I like writing about them too.
Over the last five years, Iíve landscaped and designed my backyard, too, to offer birds the things they need: shelter, food, and water. The birds are cooperating. They fly in like jets at Atlantaís Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Back to South Carolina Wildlife. One feature we ran regularly was Backyard Habitat. I recall that we gave awards to people with ideal backyard habitat for birds. Creating backyard habitat for birds was important then and itís even more important today. I see no end to the human populationís explosion and as a result, housing developments, roads, shopping malls, schools, and airports continue to eat up forests and fields, i.e. bird habitat. Each year we convert about 2.1 million acres to residential use. Thatís a lot of homes. Well, any new home worth its salt should have a backyard and even if itís small, if itís properly designed it can be a bird paradise and compensate for some of that lost habitat.

My back yard is big. I have six feeders of various designs to accommodate birds of different types, four birdbaths, and a fountain. (The sound of running water attracts birds.) Iíve planted 24 arborvitae and a huge Leyland cypress to offer places to roost at night. The dense branches provide concealment and safety. A grove of bamboo provides cover and lots of places to perch. It all comes together nicely and the birds keep me busy filling the feeders. My main headaches are relentless squirrels that will find a way to compromise any ďsquirrel-proofĒ feeder and neighborhood cats that hide in the bamboo and stalk birds. Now and then feathers tell me the cats have struck. Now and then, too, a Cooperís hawk flies in to hunt. These small hawks prey on songbirds and have learned to hang around feeders for easy hunting, but hawks have to eat too.

Bird watching is easy. Just sit on your patio or deck and watch. Bird watching is hard. Hike through the woods and trudge through wetlands and swamps. The choice is yours. Either way, getting close to nature is good for you. Iíve read that bird watching keeps the body and mind active and can help people with Alzheimerís. The mental exercise of learning something new helps improve the health of the brain, according to the Alzheimerís Association. Identifying bird species and committing them to memory does good things for you. Fresh air and vitamin D from the sun arenít bad either.

Birds give us a window into the natural world and provide crucial ecological services such as keeping insect populations in check. Birds inspire art, mascot names (Atlanta Falcons), and they pop up in our language. I heard a lady say that she maintains her weight thusly: ďI eat like a bird.Ē No maíam you donít. If you eat like a bird you never relax. Every other second a bird stops eating to do a 360 check to see if a threat like a cat or Cooperís hawk is nearby. You donít have to watch birds very long to realize that vigilance is the key to survival.

Birds come to my feeders all day long. Thereís chirping, warbling, and singing, and woodpeckers drumming as Southern gray tree frogs bark from the birdbaths. Itís a musical performance like few others. And the scents of nature seem richest at dawn ... flowers, honeysuckle, tea olives, and even grass fragrances sweeten the air. When the wind picks up the bamboo rustles and the pine tops coo. Itís like being in deep woods and in a way I am. Just across the highway from me is the largest forest inside a city limits in the eastern United States. Granted, Iím not in the country but I could do worse, like living in some big cityís concrete canyon.

I maintain that watching birds is therapeutic. Itís relaxing too. Plus they are such beautiful creatures. Look at the photos ... a goldfinch and blue bird. Stunning are they not?

Yes, I like birds and watching them beats TV any day of the year. As for getting old, maybe I have arrived at that point where being enthralled by birds qualifies me as ďadvanced in years.Ē Even so, how can you not be captivated by creatures that defy gravity. As for that old age thing, you and I both can take solace in the French definition of old age: anyone whoís fifteen years older than we are.

Photos by Robert C. Clark

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