One month ago today, I saw my first bird.
Not ever, of course. I’d have to be a complete recluse to have never seen a bird in my life before April 18, 2020 (not to mention skipped over my teenage parakeet phase), but it was the first wild bird that I purposefully attracted to my yard. Since that day, I seem to have become an official (and possibly crazy) Bird Lady.
When quarantine hit I, like most people, started thinking about what hobbies could improve my quality of life. Creating my writing persona was one (hey, hi, glad to be here), along with compiling a list of classic movies I haven’t yet seen, but I needed something else that didn’t have to do with staring at a screen.
One day I was looking out the window at the grass and not much else, and remembered that growing up we had bird feeders in front of our house that we could see from the living room. My dad was in charge of them and I suppose I always took them for granted. I’ve lived in my current location for almost 5 years but somehow it had never occurred to me to set up my own bird feeders. My couch is perfectly situated to provide a beautiful view outside so the next step was a no-brainer. Cue birds! Almost.
I started out with a very simple setup: one pole with a tube feeder, a suet feeder, and a dish for water. I found a bag of mixed seed and a box of suet cakes at Aldi and called it a day. For many days. Because my expectation of having birds flock to my yard 30 minutes after setting it all up was completely unmet. Cue sorrow.
I spent several days feeling thoroughly rejected. The first critters to find my setup were squirrels (naturally), and I let them have at it because I was just happy to see someone enjoying the fruits of my labor. Then almost 2 weeks after I put the feeders out, I looked out my window and lo and behold, there was my saving grace—Goldfinches! I quickly snapped a picture with my phone in case they never came back.
But they did come back, along with lots of others! In the days following my Goldfinch sighting, I saw House Finches, Chickadees, Sparrows, Grackles, Tufted Titmice, a Woodpecker, and the sweetest Cardinal pair who I named Hercules and Megara. I was starting to get excited because this whole thing was going better than I expected, so I decided to level up my bird feeder setup.
I read that if you really want to love on your bird population, you should provide a source of water. I thought they deserved more than the small dish I had, so I looked at birdbaths but it turns out they’re pretty expensive. I’m the type of person who is all about finding DIY workarounds if it’ll save me some money, so I constructed my own multi-tier birdbath out of a tomato cage and dishes from the dollar store. It works perfect and it only cost me 6 bucks! I’ve seen many a bird use it, and the squirrels even drink from the lower tiers. All-around win!
To expand what I dubbed my “Wildlife Farm” I found the most adorable picnic table bird feeder, a dish for mealworm cakes, and a window hook (which didn’t last very long because the squirrels started clinging to the window screen to eat the suet I hung there).
I finally had to stop the squirrels from getting to the feeders so I took big bowls (again from the dollar store), screwed holes in them, and duct-taped them in place. It works like a charm and has already saved me a bunch in seed costs. Because I felt bad for depriving them of their birdseed source (I love all animals equally), I created a small dish that’s low to the ground with snacks just for them and the chipmunks. I don’t fill it every day because I think it’s important for them to still scavenge, but they are definitely tuned in to when I do!
Of course, every solution/improvement has brought about its own new set of problems. The picnic table feeder is an open tray, which allows bigger birds to access it really easily. This was a positive in some instances, for example, I saw Rose-breasted Grosbeaks after it was installed; then Gray Catbirds showed up and they have become one of my favorite birds to watch. But along with them came Brown-headed Cowbirds, a “brood parasite” bird—they don’t make their own nests and instead lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, which can result in harm/death to those other birds’ young. I think they are beautiful birds to look at, but they can be bullies, and from what I’ve observed they never stop eating.
The Cowbirds, the Grackles, and the Mourning Doves got a monopoly around the feeders and I stopped seeing a lot of the smaller birds. Even the Cardinals were not around as much. I consulted the Google machine, which suggested switching seeds and not using a platform feeder. I compromised by moving the picnic table feeder away from the other feeders and adding more feeders that smaller birds use to my current setup. There were a few days where I was adding/adjusting constantly and wasn’t seeing much activity outside of the ever-present Cowbirds. I was worried I had ruined everything, but I think birds really just take time to get used to new things.
A few days ago, I experienced the highlight of my bird-watching career when a Baltimore Oriole appeared out of nowhere! I’m not sure what attracted him—I didn’t even know we had them in my area, I have certainly never seen one and wasn’t trying—but because of their affinity for the color orange, I suspect it was a Home Depot bucket we happened to have sitting out in the yard. Talk about good luck! As soon as he showed up, I researched what to do to keep them around and immediately put out oranges and grape jelly. He only seemed interested in the suet, but just this morning a female showed up and has been devouring the oranges herself. Yay!
Now I have a buffet of mixed seed, safflower seed, suet, a peanut seed cake, thistle seed, oranges, grape jelly, and mealworms. It’s a bird’s dream out there.
This whole thing has been one continuous learning experience, and I’m not anywhere near done. I have started learning to recognize the songs of different birds so I know they are around even if I can’t see them, and I finally had the opportunity to hear the Gray Catbird’s meow—it really does sound like a cat!
I would like to figure out a way to keep the Starlings from demolishing my mealworm and suet stash, and I’m not keen on attracting wasps with the fruit that’s out because I hate wasps, but those feel like problems for another day.
Until then, I will be here proudly watching over my newly built empire and telling people bird facts they probably don’t care about like the Bird Lady I am.