I am a self-professed “bird nerd.” My feeder is strategically placed so that I can see it out of every window in the front of our house. It is most visible from our kitchen table, but I can also see it clearly from our screened-in porch, the front hall, our living room and my oldest daughter’s room. My love of birds is obvious even when not looking out the windows. I have several framed antique Audubon bird prints hanging on my walls, pillows made with bird print fabric, bird figurines and even bird salt and pepper shakers. You’d think I was some crazy old woman hoarding all things bird. Maybe I am.
So it’s lucky for me that we live across the street from the South Chagrin Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks which happens to be a site within the Cleveland Area Loop of the Lake Erie Birding Trail. Designated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Division of Wildlife, the Lake Erie Birding Trail is divided into seven loops. The sites in each loop have been identified as containing collectively nearly 400 bird species. There are more sites on the Cleveland Area Loop, 28, than any other loop and some of them are among the most famous birding hotspots in the Midwest. The total species list for the Cleveland loop is 356, and a remarkable 12 of those species have only been recorded in this region. Tremendous numbers and diversity of migrant songbirds fill lakeside woodlands in spring and fall. Waterbirds galore pack marshes and the open lake waters, and interesting marsh birds breed in coastal wetlands. Winter brings hardy northern ducks, gulls, and raptors. There is never a dull season. And it’s all happening right in my front yard. It’s a great place to be a bird nerd.
We see a large variety of birds just outside our window including common ones like Cardinals, Blue Jays, Robins, Chickadees, Goldfinches, Tufted Titmouses, and Nuthatches. But we are frequently visited by many other species such as Red-winged Blackbirds, Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Eastern Bluebirds, various woodpeckers including the rare Pileated, hawks, owls, hummingbirds, and many more. The kids have learned most of the bird’s names. What fun it is to eat our breakfast while we watch the birds eat theirs. On occasion, we’ve even seen a hawk swoop down for a chipmunk. Not so appetizing.
Last spring I was forced to take my feeder down after my raccoon friend was causing some mischief. Every morning before dawn and after dusk he would maneuver his way around the baffle, stand on it and shovel all the food out of it right into his mouth, like a little kid stealing cookies out of a cookie jar. Occasionally, he would even figure out a way to pull it down and dump out all of the seed. Once or twice I found the feeder in various parts of the yard as if he tried to drag it back home. So, I began bringing the feeder in at night which worked until I kept forgetting and then he pulled it down and eventually he broke it. During the day, we’d watch the squirrels do acrobatics swinging from nearby bushes and even jumping from the roof onto the feeder. I tried lots of tricks including cayenne pepper in the seed, which the squirrels hate but doesn’t bother the birds. Against my better judgement, I even put Crisco on the baffle. It was a little bit funny to watch, but it still didn’t work. So, I took the feeder down until I could find a squirrel proof one. Fast forward four whole months. John and I finally made a stop last week at one of our favorite local garden and pet supply stores where we visited Gator the dog and selected a new feeder. He helped me fill it up with seed and hang it back in our special spot.
It took a day or two, but before long our new feeder and the whole yard was buzzing, or chirping, with activity! I was so happy to see all my feathered friends! This week as we’ve watched the birds come and go, we’ve noticed an abundance of Goldfinches. “The yellow ones are hogging all the food!,” the kids laughed. And they were right! At times there were as many as ten finches on the feeder and at least twenty more waiting for their turn in the trees and even on the roof. Some would fight others off or scare them away. As we watched them closely we also began to notice that some of the birds in the tree were flapping their wings quickly with excitement and chirping repeatedly. Then we actually saw another bird turn her head to the side and then appear to touch beaks with the other bird. I had seen similar behavior when a Cardinal happened to lay eggs in a nest outside our dining room window one year, so it was familiar to me. Were we seeing a mother bird feeding her babies in the tree? We thought birds normally laid their eggs in the spring. It seemed late in the summer for baby birds. We were interested to know more, so my little nature detectives and I went to work on the case.
After some research, it turns out, we were exactly right! We learned that American Goldfinches breed later than most North American birds. They wait to nest until late summer when milkweed, thistle and other plants have produced their seeds which goldfinches incorporate into their nests and also feed their young. Their parents feed them seeds which have been partly digested and regurgitated into their mouths. By the time they are 10 to 16 days old they are ready to leave the nest. The parents continue to supplement them with food until they learn to fly strongly and until they are able to self-feed. So, likely the juvenile Goldfinches we were watching in the tree outside our window being fed by their mother were just a few weeks old.
My timing was impeccable! I didn’t plan it, but I happened to put my new feeder out at just the perfect time to help this and other mother finches gather seeds and thistle to feed their young baby birds. And here she was right out our door in our beautiful Serviceberry tree feeding her babies, nurturing them, teaching them to fly and feed on their own, getting them ready to flee the nest and go out into the world. I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between that momma bird’s situation and this momma bird, moi, sending my own babies out in the world just a few weeks ago; the girls to first grade and kindergarten and John to his first year of preschool.
As I sat and watched this mother bird go back and forth, back and forth to the feeder and then to one of her babies flapping their wings to repeatedly regurgitate her food again and again, I was in awe. “Wow, what a selfless act!,” I thought. That bird was working so hard to feed her babies. She must have been so hungry from all that hard work! And here she was giving her babies all her own food. Not to mention, throwing up to do it, usually not such a pleasant experience. And, she’s probably spent her whole day doing it. I could relate because I feel like I spend my whole day feeding people in my house, breakfast, snacks, lunch, more snacks, dinner, then dessert. Someone is always squawking for food or flapping their arms in need of help here too. And it never fails that when I finally get to sit down and eat my own food, someone asks for seconds, so I give them what’s on my own plate so I don’t have to get up yet again. Now, I consider myself a decent mom, but I’m not sure I could or would throw-up to feed my own babies. And what if she wants to go fly away and chat with her girlfriends at the feeder down the street or what if she wants to go take a nap in her nest? Nope! She’s busy throwing up for her babies, ALL DAY LONG. This was one amazing momma bird. She deserves a break!
But, then I realized something. Before long at all those birdies will leave her nest to fly away and explore the world. She will have done her job nurturing them to grow big and strong, teaching them to feed themselves and showing them how to fly. Soon she will have her time to do as she likes. She will be a solitary bird with quiet days and an empty nest. Until next summer, at least.
Maybe it sounds silly, but I really admire that bird. I am inspired by her complete lack of selfishness and her tireless effort. She’s helped me to remember that in a few very short years the last of my little babies will leave the nest when he heads off to kindergarten too. And then not too long after that, all three will fly away to college and then flit off into the real world. That mother bird has reminded me that while these early years are crazy busy, they don’t last forever. Before long my baby birds won’t want to be cuddled in our little nest. I’m reminded to focus fully on the most important present task at hand and keep my nose to the grindstone, nurturing my baby birdies while I have them here in my nest, flapping their wings for my attention, singing their happy songs, learning how to fly. I want to do that wholeheartedly, with complete selflessness, just like that momma bird.
After explaining to my children what the mother bird was doing for the baby birds, I’d like to hope that they might admire that mother bird’s generosity the same way I have come to. That they will remember her actions and perhaps act the same way when given the opportunity. But, that’s probably wishful thinking. Most of all, I hope I’ve taught them to look up, look out the window, go outside, listen to the bird’s song, watch for and learn from the miracles of nature surrounding them, and to preserve and protect the Earth so that they may also sit in awe of nature with their own babies one day.