Our neighbor Jim lives right across the street from us. He’s a rather large man, who recently retired after a long career with a Twin Cities-based aerospace company. He was an inspector in their quality-control department. He said they paid him big bucks to solve problems and come up with solutions to technical puzzles. That’s one of the reasons I’ve relied on him for help with home maintenance problems, from plumbing to weather stripping to tree removal.
If you ask Jim how he’s doing, the reply is nearly always, “Livin’ the dream!” And should you chance to mention any eccentricities, he explains, “I live alone with a brass cat.”
Because I’m also retired, this summer Jim and I have had many opportunities to sit at the small table on our front patio where we drink pop and talk big. We cover mostly neighborhood issues. We seldom veer into political topics. And we wait for an energetic jogger to brighten our afternoon.
Since all our bird feeders are also in the front yard, we often have a bird zip in to grab a seed or a peanut. Jim usually asks me to identify each bird. He’s gotten so that he knows his downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, chickadees and cardinals.
The mourning doves come in to the platform feeder, usually in pairs, but sometimes just one will be there. Jim said that’s a female wondering where in the heck her mate’s gone off to. “Can’t leave that guy alone for one minute without him wandering away.”
The blue jays always surprise Jim. “They’re huge!” he said. And we can see how they dominate the feeders.
In the spring, Jim was watching a small, rusty-capped sparrow hopping along on the sidewalk. “You’re not going to tell me that’s an ordinary sparrow,” he said. “I can tell it’s different.” I told him it was a chipping sparrow and that we see them in the summer. So he was recognizing the difference between that bird and the “ordinary” English house sparrows.
A rather noisy male red-bellied woodpecker comes sailing in to the platform feeder fairly regularly. Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America describes its call as a kwirr or churr. Jim said it’s trying to attract a mate, proving how virile it is by its loud calls. And he may be right; I can’t prove him wrong.
We’ve had some memorable sightings. One day we heard some loud squawking from a tree down the block. There was a pileated woodpecker working the trunk. As we watched, it launched itself in our direction and took up a position on our next door neighbor’s maple tree. Big as a crow! We had good looks as it pried chunks of bark off the tree looking for insect life.
Not long ago, a large bird went zooming down the middle of the street, just above eye level. It was moving on very strong wingbeats. An awesome sight. It was a Cooper’s hawk, one of the hazards that neighborhood birds have to watch out for, since Cooper’s feed on other birds.
Fall is when flocks of warblers come through the metro area on their way south. They’re difficult to identify in the fall. Their colors are muted, and they’re not singing. They’re basically just flitting from bush to shrub, stoking up their little flight engines for their long migrations, some as far as Central and South America.
But by sitting relatively quietly there in the front yard, we get a chance to get a few good glances at some warblers from time to time. We had yellow-rumped warblers, as well as Nashville and Tennessee warblers, which were all new to Jim.
Another late fall visitor is the white-throated sparrow. Its song reminds me of “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody.” The first time Jim saw a white-throated sparrow, he was pretty stunned by its snow-white throat. It was in one of the bushes close to our patio table. “I’ve never seen one of those before,” he said. Not long afterward, Jim had Gary, another neighbor, in his kitchen. They looked out over his back yard and Jim said, “Look at all the white-throats out there!” Gary had never seen them before, either.
As winter approached, Jim learned the white tail flash that identifies the dark-eyed junco. We’ll have them with us all winter. They’re known as the snow bird, so once they appear, can snow be far behind?
I was delighted to hear that Jim had shown Gary what a white-throated sparrow looks like. In a sense, the pupil has become the teacher. I feel I’ve recruited another bird lover in the neighborhood, and that translates into a healthy and much needed concern for nature, the environment and all living things.
Clay Christensen lives and writes in Lauderdale. His book, The Birdman of Lauderdale, is available in local bird stores and bookstores and at BirdmanBook.com