Birding Big Year 2016

February 21, 2016

To Kill a Chickadee

Filed under: Uncategorized — wfkeck @ 1:53 pm
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Mountain Chickadee before the incident

I am easily lost in the drama displayed this early morning at the feeders.  Feet propped up on the desk in my home office; fingers interlocked forming a make-shift headrest.  I watch as Pine Siskins attack the thistle socks dangling from the roof of the covered deck.  Only ten feet and a glass door separate my perch from theirs.  The room is dark, so the glare prevents them from seeing in. Still, somehow they sense my presence and periodically dart into the juniper a few feet from the sock.  They take a breath (I hold mine); They look both ways and quickly return to breakfast.

Juncos pace around the deck floor cleaning up what the siskins drop.  Occasionally, they will stick their head into the feeder mounted to the deck rail, but mostly they prefer the floor or the ground ten feet below.  The birds have their black-oil sunflower seeds and I have my black-only straight-up Starbucks.  Sunrays strike Cache Peak a few miles away.  The rich-blue sky is crisp, and junipers stand at perfect attention – no wind today! Everybody is enjoying the morning.  And now a Mountain Chickadee pops in from who knows where, and gets everyone excited.  Chickadees are always the life of the party.  They chatter on, but never really scold in anger.

I still remember my first Mountain Chickadee: September 8, 1990.  Susan and I had spent the day before driving 460 miles from Billings to Glacier, arriving just in time to get the last available campsite.  We were living and working in Devil’s Den State Park, Arkansas in those days, and the trip to Glacier was intended to feed my need for mountain inspiration and the fragrance of sagebrush.  I got up with the sunrise and birded my way down to the lake.  Once Susan woke up, and after a quick bowl of blueberry oatmeal, we hit the trails. One grizzly, four miles, and a few lifers later, we found ourselves at the next trailhead – this one to Apikuni Falls.  Susan stayed in the Trooper, while I ran up the trail for photos.  (I am still a sucker for waterfalls).  But I am always birding, so when I walked into a thicket of chatter, I stopped and took note.  I gave a quick “pish” and a Mountain Chickadee presented himself front and center.  The black eye-stripe immediately separated him from the other Chickadee members in the ranged: Black-capped, Chestnut-backed, and Boreal.

Mountain Chickadees are a true western species, confining themselves to the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Plateau, Basin and Range, Sierras, and Cascades.  When I see one, I know I am in the right place – which is why their appearance at my feeders reassures me that building a home on the southern slope of Cache Peak was a good decision.  I watch this one dart in and out of the feeder, seed in beak and off to a hidden juniper branch to crack it open.  Less than a minute later he is back for more, and this time with his mate.

I may not be the only one watching birds.  curled up on a deck chair cushion is our adopted cat affectionately named “Mere Cat” – short for “Come here cat” and also because his voice is more mere than meow.  Mere Cat is watching with all the interest of a cow taking notice of a magpie.  I take heart in believing that Mere Cat doesn’t like birds, and from all indications, prefers rabbits and rodents.  Susan thinks Mere Cat may be the grown-up kitty that was raised under our front porch in the summer of 2012, so we have allowed it to take up residence with us.  I’m not a cat guy, but Mere Cat has grown on me, and follows me around when I do yard work.  Dogs and cats become family members once you start talking to them, and I have to admit, Mere Cat and I have had more than a few conversations.

Almo, like most rural communities, has its share of feral cats. On some days, I might see as many cats hunting as hawks.  A feral cat is one which has been born into wildness and has learned to survive on its own without human interaction.  We do not feed Mere Cat.  He came with skills, and feeding the birds is costly enough.  A recent study by the Smithsonian estimates that 2.5 billion birds are killed by cats (feral and domestic) annually in the US.  World-wide, some 33 species of birds have become extinct due to cat predation.  Cats are just superb hunters, and domestic cats often kill for sport.

I know the statistics, but I have spent many hours watching birds and Mere Cat.  They seem to tolerate each other in this paradise I call home.  But then who wouldn’t be intimidated by 50 screaming pinyon jays arriving at the feeder in force?  Mere Cat just lays there, filled and contented from last night’s hunt.  My affections for chickadees surpass most birds and all cats, but as a naturalist and admirer of the Creator’s work, I find joy and fascination with all life.

My coffee mug is empty, and it is time to get on with the day. I turn my attention to the laptop to balance the checkbook, check Facebook, and give Instagram a look.  Suddenly a loud crash resonates from outside.  What the heck?!!  I run to the living room windows to get a broader view of the deck.  All the birds have scattered, and perched over my Mountain Chickadee is Mere Cat’s southpaw – death for breakfast.

I stand there in shock and disbelief. A rush of emotions smack me like a bird to a window. I am angry with the cat, broken over the departed, and so disappointed with my naivety. Its mate appears from the juniper, perches on the rail above and looks on.  Does it understand what has just happened?

Evolutionists might recount matter-of-factly the survival of the fittest principle. I might no doubt be chastised for anthropomorphizing the whole incident. And of course a thousand fellow birders will shake their heads in disdain. I have become the problem.  “Cats don’t kill chickadees, people do.”  Adding to my guilt, I recall the words of Jesus, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father.”  If an omniscient God takes note of the death of a house sparrow commonly used in ancient sacrifices, how much more a chickadee who is called to bring Him glory! Scripture also states, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

I installed the bird feeders that attracted the birds; I kept them fat and contented. I gave Mere Cat his cozy perch and permission to stay. I assumed, then, that they would abide by the house rules: (1) bring joy to the master of the house, and (2) no fighting!  And yet, in my conflicted state, I am reminded of all the times this winter that the feeders at the visitor center attracted flocks of birds, which in turn attracted bird predators: Northern Shrike, American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Northern Goshawk…and feral cats.  Predator and prey relationships, as the biologist will say, is the circle of life.

Some theologians argue that in the Garden, animals were vegetarians, but that predator/prey relationships began with man’s original sin.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Judeo-Christian followers believe that the original relationship of animals will return in the new heaven and the new earth.  Isaiah writes, “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, and dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.

Three things I painfully learn from this incident: (1) I killed the Chickadee – my own sins of omission; and for that I must give an account as steward of His creation. (2) Despite the million dollar view from my deck, the song birds at my feeder, and the cute little kitty curled up on my deck, this is not paradise.  And finally, (3) Birding is all fun and games…until somebody gets hurt.

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Mere Cat (kitty) 2012

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