Corrupting the youth

I have four bird feeders in my small urban yard (tube, thistle, platform, hummingbird) but can’t see any of them from my second-story study window, which is veiled by a maple tree far taller than the house. So I fixed a suction-cup window feeder to the upper pane. Earlier in the spring I didn’t get many takers, and those who came grabbed a quick morsel and retreated to the safety of the tree. But the past couple of weeks have seen a constant stream of fledglings: young male cardinals, scruffy and mottled, whom I’ve watched gradually redden and swell; a slender mockingbird who tried out his new repertoire in a nearby branch; a song sparrow who takes his peanut to the stone ledge of the window to peck it to bits; a juvenile house finch who, rather than perching on the feeder’s edge, stands in the pile of seed, hunts for the one he wants, then thoughtfully (as it appears to me) hulls and consumes it while watching me with (what, again, appears to me) casual curiosity three feet away behind glass. The finch is content to occupy the feeder for several minutes at a time while other birds wait in the tree like adolescents in line for the bathroom. Hurry up in there!

This little feeder has given me a chance to observe the birds far more closely than I have before and to see behavior that I hadn’t noticed — the way they use their beaks to remove the inner hulls of safflower, and the way they glance quickly around before examining the contents of the feeder. And it pleases me to think that having learned to trust my window, some of these juveniles will stay the winter and return with their own young next spring.

I do feel an occasional twinge of guilt. The adults know better than to eat a leisurely meal three feet from a human, even a human separated from them by glass. I am after all a predator, whose beneficence is sporadic; I barbecued a couple of chickens just last weekend. I’ve lured their children with the avian equivalent of candy, and I fear I’m teaching them bad habits — undoing millennia of behavioral evolution.

But of course  my very presence here does that much, doesn’t it? This little yard, landscaped to a human’s aesthetic, has created an ideal habitat for these birds — and long ago drove away the birds for whom it wasn’t. Feeding the birds shapes them; not feeding them shapes them. Planting grass shapes them; planting shrubs shapes them; letting the yard turn into a chaos of first-stage transitional woodland shapes them. Before the houses were here the birds were shaped by farmers and farmland, and before that by the varying land uses of Piedmont Indians. There’s no baseline, nothing “natural” I can return or even refer to. I’m on my own, pretty much as I am in raising my own teenagers. The vague predatory guilt only bemuses me: that’s the thought that’s really disquieting.

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