Dan Rattiner's Stories

At the Harbor: Through Binoculars to a Bird Feeder Up Close and Personal

Watching birds is an excellent diversion while sequestering at home.

Why don’t we put a bird feeder on our front lawn?” my wife asked.

We were out on our afternoon walk on the shores of Three Mile Harbor and she, with her binoculars, was looking at the shorebirds swooping around.

I thought it a wonderful idea. We’re home sequestering because of the COVID-19 virus. The walks get us out every afternoon into the wild for an hour to look at, among other things, the birds. Why not have it so that we not only go out to see them, but have them over to our house to see us? We weren’t having any humans over, after all. But we could have birds.

We live on a hillside overlooking the harbor. So we set up two bird feeders, each a hanging lantern sort of thing at the top of long poles stuck in the ground on our front lawn, just a foot beyond the end of our deck. We’d see the birds up close from our breakfast table where we eat every morning. Beyond the birds, we could watch the yachts, sailboats, kayakers, eagles, osprey, swans and seagulls.

That first morning, nobody came. We’d filled the smaller lantern with something called Nyjer—made from thistles—which the finches were supposed to eat. And we’d filled the larger lantern with sunflower chips for everybody else to eat.

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We sat there staring at the lanterns for a while.

“So, we set out a buffet,” I said. I was eating cheerios. “They’re not interested.”

“Wait,” my wife said.

So we waited. After a while, our squirrel scrambled over. I say he is our squirrel because he’s been hanging around—we see him every day on the deck railings, out getting nuts for his family. It’s always the same squirrel. We’ve been here 30 years. Anyway, he scrambled over to the two lanterns—just an easy jump away—but he stayed on the railing and just stared at them. Then he scrambled away.

Over coffee, a black bird came. He did the same thing, but he flew away.

“I think you should contact Wild Bird Crossing which sold us this rig,” I said. “It’s not working.”

Wild Bird Crossing is in Bridgehampton.

“He’s gone off to tell his friends,” my wife said.

By the way, one of the two lanterns is called “The Squirrel Buster.” It has four round holes just above four metal perches that jut out. The bird stands on the perch, puts his beak in and eats. The perches each can hold just three pounds. If any larger creature steps onto the perch, the perch, on a spring-loaded hinge, collapses downward to become flush with the side. It’s like a trap door. Squirrels learn quickly and never come back. This bird feeder won an award for that. The other bird feeder is smaller and has a perch too small and precarious for squirrels.

The next morning, still nobody came. But the third morning, the first black bird was back, with another black bird. They chattered away and ate before flying off.

“It’s her mate,” my wife said, taking full credit for believing it was a member of the fairer sex who had come home with the good news.

So how did she do that? We know birds cheep. Presumably that’s how it’s done. But what do other birds hear with? They don’t have ears. Is there some little hole on a bird that hears? I guess so. I never thought about this before. And another thing. There may be a dozen different kinds of birds in every tree. So this one has her special cheep just for her mate. Yes, I know you know that. But how come the others, overhearing, don’t understand it?

And guess what? The next morning, the word was out, and we watched 10 birds from this tribe and one other tribe eat while we ate breakfast. And the next morning after that it was 20 birds and the next day 30— red ones, blue ones, big ones, little ones. And then 50.

After a full week, the feed was almost gone and my wife took the bird feeder down and restocked it from this 25-pound bag of feed we had.

Now it’s been four weeks and the situation has gotten worse. Birds come from near and far, from Southampton, Bridgehampton, Amagansett, Montauk. We began restocking every four days. Then every two days. And while we have the feeders down to be restocked in the kitchen, the birds sit on the railings, angrily waiting for us.

It has occurred to me that there will be no end to the increase of our breakfast visitors. There’s an almost infinite number of birds in the region. I’ve heard birds can migrate from as far north as Newfoundland and as far south as Costa Rica. The word is out.

“How much does one of these bags of feed cost?” I asked her.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Not much.”

My wife’s now got a Sibley’s Birds of the Northeast book. She’s identifying all the birds. I don’t need to do this. Because I know what we have. Big black ones with white wing tips, yellow ones with grey wings, grey ones with yellow feet. It’s easy.

Over the years, my wife and I have taken trips to faraway places together in the wintertime. One time we went on a safari in Africa for three weeks. We went to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa. One day we were at Leopard Hills, a tent camp in the middle of nowhere, eating breakfast on a wooden platform. Overhead, monkeys jumped around in trees.

A waiter told us the rules.

“Don’t feed the monkeys,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“If you feed them the first morning but don’t feed them the second morning, they will bite you.”

I await developments.

Well, two weeks later, there were developments.

“I think we ought to get a bird bath,” she said. “We could put it a few feet away from the bird feeders.”

I thought about this. “So you’re saying after they enjoy the buffet, they might want to go for a swim?”

“Yes.”

Well, it’s been ordered and it’s on its way. I’m thinking we might link the feeders with the bath. Put in a water slide like they have at Splish Splash.

Eat, swim, add a little yoga, some massage. Why not?

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