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Life Watching

 From the slow, thaw-settling collapse of the snow blanketing the lawn to the uppermost terminal shoot on a sixty-foot spruce tree, my backyard has become avian central for a steady fly-by of birds these past few days.

To the casual and infrequent observer, there might appear to be only minimal activity among the common species typically associated with urban landscapes: house sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches and of course the resident downy woodpecker.  Add the casual visitation of redpolls, hairy woodpeckers and the rarer Northern flicker and the stars of the backyard bird show are constantly joined by a rotating cast of support players.

Just yesterday, the stage was a flurry of activity with a diverse cast of winged performers. Juncos fluttered to the grounds throughout the yard, at first seemingly oblivious to the patch of seeds purposefully scattered just beyond the reaches of the overhanging spruce. Once discovered, the smattering of birds each took their position around the ‘A’ male  who seemed to have the pecking order well under his wing.


As reliable as locals gathered for morning coffee in a small town cafe, so too were the feathery visitors to my platform feeder. Their constant maneuvering had all the complexity of the landing pattern at a busy airport – coupled with the grace and intricacies of a Cirque du Soleil performance. 

The nuthatch’s swooping approach ended in a quick upward fishhook maneuver onto the rim of the feeder tray. Chickadees dropped down unceremoniously from overhanging branches – except for one particularly chunky fellow. His approach onto the feeder was like watching a Navy Hellcat fighter plane make a tail hook landing on an aircraft carrier – and accented repeatedly by a muffled but clearly audible “thud” every time he landed.


As I enjoyed this daily performance unfold, a speck of brilliant red flashed out through the branches in far corner of my lot. It wasn’t until its silhouette stood out against the white walls of the neighbor’s garage that it’s long tail and definitive head crest confirmed my joyful suspicions. Before I could even think “cardinal”, it’s mate appeared a few branches away. Moments later two collared doves, male and female, roosted on the cable line suspended across the yard. Love is in the air!

While scanning the shadows and inner branches of the overhead canopy framing my backyard skyline, I caught a wink of a movement high atop that same towering spruce. There in a premium, commanding position above the entire yard – a lone sentinel – a northern shrike. It sat motionless, poised like a hood ornament in it’s predatory stillness.

It’s a routine I’ve come to enjoy most every afternoon, a few hours before sunset when my winged neighbors return from their daily forage and flight beyond my block. It’s more than just bird watching, it’s “life” watching, something we all need to do a little more of these days.

The more we stop and observe, the more we see a clearer picture of what is actually going on all around us. I sometimes wonder if perhaps all this backyard commotion is merely all those birds positioning themselves to get a better look at me?