“Birds like movement and sound – so bubbling water attracts them,” says Cary Andrews, the ornithological expert speaking on bird-friendly gardens at the Croton Free Library in front of an audience of two or three dozen intent locals. If you don’t have an exotically lovely koi pond, she says, a bird bath will do, or even a strategically set up plastic gallon jug tipped just so. Watch out for frogs, though, some of whom “can take out a hummingbird.”
In my bag, I carry a palm-sized nature guide dating to 1949, which I’d rediscovered in a box of old books earlier in the day.
The flyleaf is inscribed, “To Zan, from Mother, April 18, 1952.”
This is the last in the Green Living Series for this year offered by the Croton Conservation Advisory Council – earlier talks had focused on invasive plants and biophilia, or the love of nature – and Gil and I want to get some information on setting up a feeder. What we get is a lot more global. Water, food, nesting. The best plants so the birds can thrive. But also much larger questions of habitat, creating it and preserving it, and the survival of all the species, not just everyday sparrows.
I am tempted as the lecture begins to hand my book over to the cutest little four year old girls, who keep giddily crawling back and forth in front of the podium until they are stilled by their chaperone. I am eager to hear about migration of another kind, from our speaker, birds flying all the way up from South America, drawn by the Hudson. Birds love water – robins, report Cary, like nothing so much as a sprinkler going back and forth, plus it loosens up the turf “so they can get their worms.”
The talk includes great photos, still there’s something softly magical about these illustrations from sixty years ago.
The tufted titmouse, one of my favorites since moving to the Cabin, is a bird I’d like to attract. Now I’m hearing about raspberries that ferment when overripe so that they’re called drunkberries. Birds enjoy them. And among other pleasant digressions, Cary mentions that she’d like to organize a “garden tour of pink trees” in spring. And that she was once distracted when looking out a conference window by 10 cedar waxwings feeding on red berries. And that she and her bird-crazy neighbors put in their bird-friendly plants and tease each other: “You stole my birds!”
“Fifty percent of the wren’s diet is spiders,” I learn. Insects. They are more important than I knew. All those downed, rotting trees around the Cabin, they are gold. Bark crevices are what bugs love. And birds love bugs. And cats love birds.
No! Don’t go there. It turns out that cats are responsible for decimating billions of birds in the U.S. each year. Cary quotes a controversial University of Wisconsin study. And the bells assigned them by well-meaning owners help not a whit. They’re much worse than the hawks circling far above.
The bugs birds eat, especially the larvae babies require, grow on native plants. “Go native!” says our speaker, who admits that though she is a bird person, she was only recently educated about setting up her own bird-friendly garden. Smart and mildly self-effacing, she grants the audience “permission to be messy”: leave brush piles alone, stalks standing, the lawn grown out a bit more than most Americans think is decent. Even some weeds are good. The thistle. Even crab grass. Throw your Christmas tree to the side of your yard and a bird might take up occupancy. (We have one of those.) I also know for a fact that the fir trees close to our outside wall makes the bluejays happy.
This “tightly woven relationship between plants, insects and birds” sometimes leaves humans out in the cold. Poison ivy, for instance, is a delight for birds, it seems. Cary advocates preserving it where possible. This is the true bird’s eye view.
A few more nuggets before we dive into the cupcakes on the library table. Deer have been seen swimming from New Jersey to Staten Island. No joke. Hummingbirds will on occasion use spider webs to build their nests.
The robin’s nest found in Cary’s friend’s yard incorporated a length of her young daughter’s hair ribbon.
I start for home. In the back of my vintage bird guide I discover the following note, handwritten in neat pencil:
July 25, 1959.
Today for the second time,
a small red bird perched
on the picket fence outside
my window. He warbled
a few notes and then left.
I found out that it was a
cardinal through this book.