Monday, April 21, 2008


When you live in a place long enough, and you're lucky enough to be able to work at home and stare out the windows at the birds for part of each day, you can get to know them as individuals. It helps when a bird has distinctive markings--maybe missing feathers on the hindcrown, like one male indigo bunting who nested here for many years. Perhaps there's a drooping wing, like that of the bluebird we called Mr. Troyer. He nested in our yard for eight years, and I still miss him. There's a long story behind him, but that's one for the next book.
Speaking of distinctive markings, this is Snowflake (who I began calling Queen Frostine), a leucistic female dark-eyed junco who has been with us for three winters, growing whiter each year. She's a Zick Dough freak, and I'd love to think that we've just sent her to Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire or Ontario with an ample pad of fat for the flight, and a good start for the breeding season ahead. The last juncoes left on April 17 as they do every year. You can imagine how excited we'll be should Queen Frostine show up again next winter. She's our friend.

Ruby is a beautiful female red-bellied woodpecker. This is her third year with us (that I know of). Year to year, she's displayed a consistent mark: two tiny red bindis in her otherwise gray forecrown. She's also got really red nares just above the bill, which is a sign of her maturity, as is the faint wash of red along her malar (jaw) area).
Those two simple feathers, and the fact that I happened to notice them, elevate her status from that of Just Another Redbelly to a Named Bird, a friend. It's a human conceit, of course, that she's special because I've named her, but it helps me to feel a bond with her from year to year, and it makes me more interested in watching her behavior. There's value in that, if only for me as the observer. She's certainly interested in my behavior; she waits each morning in the willow or on the chimney for me to pop out with the Zick Dough. Recipe here. She's probably noticed that I have more gray streaks in my forecrown this year than last, and a bunch more than three years ago. Ruby, we'll talk.

Sometimes she's dainty about helping herself to dough
and sometimes she grabs the biggest glob she can find to bear off and cache.
I never tire of watching Ruby, of noticing what, besides those two little red feathers, makes her an individual.
Wouldn't you think she'd spread her wings for the leap down to the railing? I think she wants to avoid knocking the dough to the ground with the backwash from her wings, that's what I think.

I like Ruby; I like knowing that she knows me and looks forward to seeing me, too. She's not a pet, but neither is she just another bird to me. She's my neighbor, my friend.

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