Jan 28, 2009

The View from Mudsock Heights: Here Comes the Vast Array of Plumage and Song

By Dennis Powell | Posted at 11:15 PM

Before it gets much warmer, I need to fetch out the ladder and put up an obstruction so the phoebes won’t build another nest over my porch swing.

Phoebes are delightful little birds, all in shades of grey but white on the front, with a squared-off topknot. Even more than penguins, they seem to be dressed for a formal event. Their charm diminishes, though, when they’re perched right above the place where one would like to relax of an evening.

Last year, they made a dandy nest there, atop the king beam above my back porch. I didn’t notice what they were up to until it was too late; one shouldn’t knock down a nest in use. So I’ve gotten some half-inch hardware cloth and I’ll cut it and staple it up — if i measure carefully, it won’t look all that bad — so they’ll pick a different home this year.

When I was growing up, I had — still have — a fascination for reptiles. This may have had something to do with my later career reporting on politics. Birds were never all that interesting to me, but in this part of the country there is such avian variety and beauty it’s difficult not to notice. The spring’s first bluebird is a fine natural mood enhancer. In awhile what I think are goldfinches will be around the house, with their bright yellows and oranges, as pretty as the colors of any flower, providing a nice surprise. And it is always a surprise to find that anything so pretty has decided to stop by.

The woodpeckers will get busy, too; in the woods one can easily imagine some kind of skirmish is underway, with the small arms fire of the little woodpeckers and the heavy machine-gunning of the big pileated woodpecker. A couple of years ago there was a fuss made when it was thought that an ivory-billed woodpecker had been spotted in, I think, Arkansas; it had been thought extinct since the late 1950s. Our own pileated woodpecker is very much like the ivory bill — a foot tall, sometimes even bigger — except that its beak is not white. They are shy, but when you do see one it’s a real treat. One day last year one of them decided to take refuge on my porch during a storm. It was the closest I’ve ever been to one, and I remember it well and fondly. Think Woody Woodpecker in stuffed-toy size. A bigger one visited a brushpile at the edge of the yard last week.

Later on, the hummingbirds will come round, sometimes so many of them that one thinks in terms of a swarm. During a rainstorm last summer there must have been two dozen treating themselves to the nectar from the flowers growing on bushes under the safety of the eaves outside my living room window. There is nothing on television to match such real-life entertainment.

There are wrens in my little woodshop, where I also store my motorcycle. Wrens have an attitude. They will scold you all the time. I like them. I did not, however, like the one that made its mark on my just-washed bike one day soon after I moved here; I was uttering oaths at it under my breath when it landed on a rafter and … exploded! Feathers everywhere! You could have knocked me over with one of those feathers. It seemed a shame to me that if I had suddenly acquired the ability to make things explode merely by wishing it I would waste that power on a tiny bird. But it turned out that in an effort to reduce the pitter patter of tiny little rodent feet there had been placed a few mousetraps on top of the rafters, and the unfortunate motorcycle offender had landed on one.

We are blessed with all manner of birds of prey as well, from the gorgeous red-tail hawk to bald eagles, smaller hawks, and a rich array of owls. They almost make all those mice and chipmunks worth the trouble.

Which reminds me that while I’m on the ladder I need to stuff some heavy steel wool into all those cracks and small openings through which rodents invite themselves indoors. I wish I could find heavy bronze wool for the purpose — it doesn’t rust. But replacing the steel wool every year or two gives me the opportunity to notice the other little things that need repair.

I wish I knew more about the birds found hereabouts, but I’m learning. My friend Robin — just occurred to me how appropriate her name is — is knowledgeable as to birds and is happy to answer my questions. She is the one who told me that a phoebe is a phoebe. I’d never seen one before moving here.

As spring approaches and settles in, and we spend more time outside, it’s well worth looking for the origins of those squeaks and peeps and squawks. A lot of people in this country see no birds beyond pigeons and sparrows and starlings, maybe the occasional seagull. We’re far better off.

Except when someone nests right above the porch swing.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

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