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The invasion of the birds

Column by Hal Walter

Wildlife – March 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

If you’re going to feed the birds, you might as well do it in a big way.

There’s a flock of ravens here at my ranch that I’ve been spoiling all winter. It’s actually inadvertent. They come in the morning to pick at the tiny leaves that fall from the alfalfa hay I feed my burros. They drink from the stock tanks, peck at the salt block, squabble lightly amongst themselves and in general have a good old time.

It’s cheap entertainment. I used to keep chickens and once watched a banty hen chase down and kill a mouse. But wild birds are much more fun to watch, and you rarely get the urge to eat them.

Ravens can be ancient birds and I wonder sometimes if any of these heavy-beaked monsters were around to pick clean the carcasses of buffalo killed by Indians on this same location 150 years ago. Now these great black birds eat grapes that I put out on an old dilapidated picnic table behind the house. When disturbed they flap up into the old dead ponderosa that stands to the west.

Most peckerwoods would have made firewood of this tree skeleton long ago. But this tree was the leading reason we decided to park our lives here. I’d burn my furniture before I’d burn this gnarly icon. It stands as a perch for the ravens in the morning and the big owls at dusk. In the spring and summer, its hollow chambers are nurseries for little owls of a species I have yet to identify. I once buried a dead cat at the base of this tree and was never aware of the irony until now.

It’s been a strange year, according to birds.

The robins, the Californians of the avian world, never left, even when the arctic cold fronts moved in and the sun dipped behind the Sangres right in the middle of the afternoon. By late January the robins were amassing in big flocks in the grassy creekbeds and pastures — even at 9,000 feet. I don’t get it. If I could migrate that easily — that freely — I probably-would.

One sunny morning in late December, I walked outside and heard a strange, out-of-context noise. I looked up to see three black spots high in the sky. These UFOs were Canada geese. Honkers. Never seen them flying around here before.

The piƱon jays came squawking back in late January. Later in the year they’ll team up with the magpies to make sure I never sleep in very late. And the magpies, Rocky Mountain pheasants, will be riding my burros around the pasture pecking parasites off the equines’ backs and leaving behind white doo-doo for me to brush off my animals.

Chickadees seem rather scarce this winter. But that could be due to my unsuccessful hunting last fall. Generally I hang the rib cage bones from some big-game critter in a tree near the house, and these little gray and black boogers party in the thing all winter long. It’s fun to watch them on a snowy day, running up and down the trunks of trees, hanging upside-down from branches, and pecking, always pecking.

Actually the new year in birddom generally starts sometime between late February and mid-March when the bluebirds return. Our state bird. We are immediately aware they’ve arrived because the lusty males spend their early spring days perched in our window sills attacking their own reflections in the glass. It’s a fight that’s difficult to lose, and usually these birds have paired off with their less-blue females by the time we’re getting ready for the biggest snowstorm of the winter, typically in mid-May.

Last year I finally got around to hanging up the bluebird house that my wife’s godfather built and gave to us. I put it in the crook of a ponderosa not too far off the back porch. My thought was that we could watch the birds raise their young from the comfort of our own kitchen table. Sure enough, within a few days a bluebird couple had set up house in this barnwood modular.

About then a big wind came through and took one of the doors off the outdoor closet on our back porch. Before I had a chance to fix the dang thing, the bluebirds had packed up their nest, moved it out of the birdhouse and across the yard. They set up shop on the shelf inside the defunct closet. Soon there was the cheep sound of baby birds coming from the closet. It allowed me to procrastinate on fixing the door until after the brood was raised.

In the meantime, as Western forest fires hazed the skies last summer, the juncos and finches decided suicide was the most viable option. They began slamming into our windows at the alarming rate of four or five a day. Dozens died. I’ve lived here for six years and never have I seen anything like this.

One summer evening a young robin, its breast still yellowish and speckled, rocketed into a window right at dusk. I’m superstitious and took the still-warm broken-necked bird out to a peaceful resting place in the aspens. Just a day or two later, one of those little owl-like birds that nest in the dead pine tree found its way into my tack shed. By the time it was discovered, the little bird was deathly weak. It died overnight and I sadly placed this crumpled handful of feathers out with the robin. A motley mottled pair.

Then in late August we had a sooty encounter. A fledgling bluebird flew under the rain cap and down the chimney pipe. In the course of its struggle it knocked loose an avalanche of creosote. So when I went to rescue the bird, the stove’s damper door wouldn’t fall open because it was bermed shut by soot and ash.

The only solution was to disassemble the back of the woodstove and remove the first length of pipe. Of course at the first sight of daylight, the bluebird — now a blackbird — exploded into the house and about five pounds of soot and ash fell out of the back of the stove and onto the hearth.

The little bird bounced off the walls a few times leaving little sooty birdprints. Then he flew into a window and latched onto the screen. I was able to capture the frightened bird by covering him with a T-shirt. I took him outside, where he flew away chirping, seemingly unharmed, but probably suffering from black lung.

Then I spent about two hours cleaning up the mess and putting the stove and pipes back together. I didn’t have to get the chimney pipe cleaned this year.

Early last fall scores of Clark’s nutcrackers invaded the area. My theory was that a hard winter was ahead and these birds’ movement out of the big mountains portended big snows.

The Clark’s nutcracker is a large gray jaybird common to subalpine zones of our mountain ranges. These raucous birds are fun to watch as they surf mountain thermals. They often light on dead pines to polish their beaks on the wood and squawk at nothing in general. Nutcrackers collect and eat the seeds of pine trees and store some of them for the winter. Though most of the seeds are found and eaten during the snowy months, some go unrecovered by the birds. Thus the nutcrackers are credited with “planting” many pine trees through this symbiotic relationship.

But nutcrackers are jokers too. As of now, in late January, the big snows just haven’t materialized in these parts. Winter, in its most depressing form, has been alternating weeks of sub-zero “blue northers” and extremely high winds known as Chinooks. One windstorm snapped 30 power poles and yanked a barbed-wire fence right out of the ground by its posts.

How can birds predict a season’s weather any better than The Weather Channel, anyway? This year in preparation for the cold days and long nights I rented a satellite dish and had it planted right on the leechfield where it belongs.

But the best show is still outside.

Several Stellar’s jays — a very loose-knit clan — have set up camp around this burro ranch. Mostly these dark-blue beauties are interested in the odd pieces of grain the burros scatter around. They have white stripes on their faces and top-notches on their heads. There’s one that I call “The Chief” because he has such a big rack of head feathers. When he sits in the tree facing downwind toward my living room, these ornamental feathers splay out like a war bonnet, and the stripes on his face look like warpaint. He watched over me like this — or so I feverishly imagined — while I was intensely ill this winter.

The birds were here long before us, and I’m sure they’ll be here when we are long gone, regardless of the legacy we’ve left. It’s easy to sit back and poke fun at all the issues going on in Central Colorado — out-of-control development, the quirky weather, prison growth, the People of Money, needless new rules and regulations, industrial tourism, that polluted ditch of a river we call the Arkansas, odd characters, water rights and wrongs, defunct resorts, clashing social agendas or whatever.

But sometimes it’s better to just sit back and watch the birds. They seem to have their priorities straight.

When he’s not writing, Hal Walter watches birds from a peoplehouse on the east side of the Sangres, overlooking greater Westcliffe.