My husband has gotten really into bird watching since he dropped out of his PhD program. In many ways once he dropped out he became again the man I fell in love with, the goofy ding dong singing and dancing in the kitchen, pulling pranks, identifying interests and pursuing them, all the things that, for whatever reason, working on the PhD had taken from him. (This is not to say I was not still in love with him while he was in grad school; just that he was very different at that time). Since bailing, he’s gotten back into sound recording and design, and bought a bunch of fancy microphones. He planned a camping trip in Vermont. He built a bench based on plans he found in this weird book about GARDEN IDEAS. He got really into this thing called “forest farming” which is when you farm in harmony with nature, meaning you don’t clearcut and plow. He keeps talking about planting paw paw trees under my office window and he says he’s going to encircle our home with hazelnut shrubs. All of this is A-OK by yours truly; as the old sexist saying goes, “happy wife / happy life,” or in this case “happy old man / good times enjoyed by all.”
So birding is one of the new things he’s gotten into since quitting academia brought an unimaginable amount of free time back into his life. He listens to birdcall records and looks at bird flashcards and reads about birds and donates to the Cornell Ornithology Lab and listens to a podcast called “Talkin’ Birds” and subscribes to a magazine called “Living Bird” that is full of advertisements for places you can go on vacation where there are lots of neat birds. He got a bird bath and put it in the yard and for months we would sit in the living room and watch birds taking baths and we would laugh and laugh, because birds are very funny when they bathe. They really kick up a ruckus! They wade right in and start throwing water all over and fluffing up their feathers! Then they fly up into the overhanging shrubbery and preen themselves and flap around. One time I looked outside and a giant bright red cardinal was just sitting in the very middle of the bath. Not washing or fluffing, just sitting. He looked like a guy taking a relaxing break in a hot tub. It was truly so funny and I’m not sure why. Big red blob in the bath.
One of the newer bird-related accoutrements in our yard is this elaborate bird feeder that is designed to ward off squirrels. For a long time we have had little stick-on window feeders that are basically just trays with suction cups; you put them on the window, fill them up with seeds, and presto, the birds come a’flockin’ and you can see them right up close. We mostly see: chickadee, tufted titmouse, finch, house sparrow, song sparrow, junco, nuthatch, and carolina wren. The nuthatch is my favorite because he is very fat and has a very long thin beak and you want to squeeze him, also he walks down tree branches upside-down looking for bugs. The nuthatch is cool as hell if you ask me. Anyway, it’s hard to keep the squirrels out of the bird feeder because it turns out squirrels are not only greedy fucking pigs but incredibly dexterous, agile, and unbelievably intelligent to boot. I literally would never have imagined how smart a squirrel could be until this whole bird feeder situation forced my to confront it. The squirrels first were using our garden hose to strategically leap up the wall of the house and into the feeder, and it didn’t matter how high up we put the feeder, they’d make it. So then you’d come out of the bedroom of a morning, yawning, ready to greet yet another bright fresh day bestowed by our benevolent lord, and instead of a dainty finch or chickadee you’d see a giant shitty squirrel, sitting IN the feeder, eating all the seeds with his hands like a person or raccoon, his fur all squished up against the window, his rat-feet gripping horribly upon the plastic of the feeder’s edge. No thank you!
So my old man went and got a truly badass bird feeder that you stick on a huge iron spike in the middle of the ground, and it hangs off a hook. The seeds are encased in a tube long enough that a squirrel can’t reach the openings at the bottom even if he hangs off the top of the feeder with his feet like a bat (which I can now assure you is something squirrels do constantly). Furthermore, the little ledge surrounding the bottom of the feeder is just sturdy enough to hold little birdies while they eat daintily; if a squirrel tries to sit on it it tumps him off into the snow. So far so good, right? WRONG
The first day it was up we sat and watched squirrels try and fail to get into it for hours and we laughed and laughed and yelled things like “fuck you” and “not today son” at the squirrels. The squirrels tried everything! They leapt, they climbed, they flung themselves into space with nary a thought for their own safety or the safety of others. One squirrel kept trying to shimmy up the pole, and then he’d slide all the way back down it, like a fireman’s pole! It was truly hilarious. “We have solved the problem with our human ingenuity,” we congratulated ourselves. Alas, we all know how the deadly sin of hubris is rewarded—-with an iceberg collision in the dead of night that turns you immediately into the world’s greatest metaphor for hubris! And our hubris was about to be punished in just such a tragic way…
I got up this morning and the first thing I saw when I went into the kitchen was a squirrel eating out of the bird feeder. How did he do this? I am about to tell you the truth: these damn squirrels actually retrofitted the bush next to the feeder! It took them several days but they figured out which branch of this bush would enable them to shimmy out to the end and then make it to the correct height—-as the branch bent down under their weight—-to reach out and grab the rim of the feeder, where the seeds are held. They literally stripped this one branch of all its auxiliary twigs (there’s a pile of twigs on the ground underneath) to make it smoother shimmying. They performed fairly complex physics calculations involving arc and weight and bend and honed the branch until it would meet their needs. As I watched, the squirrel in fact fine-tuned the branch, biting off the end of it as it was getting caught on the rim of the feeder. He took it out of his mouth using his paw, and tossed it negligently to the ground. Then he shimmied the rest of the way, waited for the branch to bend all the way down, realigned his position, then dropped upside-down, hanging by his feet, and calmly ate seeds while I screamed.
It was truly horrible