Etiquette Among the Birds

July 2, 2008

Most wild creatures which hang around humans quite a bit strike my wife and me as living near the corner of Repulsive and Disgusting. Do you regard a neighborhood containing starlings, rats, squirrels, coyotes, slugs, and opossums as the high rent district?

When we moved from Los Angeles to Seattle in our 20s, with a little girl younger than Random Granddaughter is now, we noticed some new wild creatures. The first ones we noticed were fairly repulsive. “Oooh, what are those things?”  We squealed. “At least in Los Angeles the slimy, slithering creatures dressed decently in shells and called themselves ‘snails.'” Slugs shocked our innocent sensibilities. It was like moving from the hood where winos drink cheap wine on the street to the milieu where crack and heroin addicts shoot up in the alley.

However, the second new wild creatures we noticed proved to be something of an exception to our judgment of wild+frequently adjacent to humans=obnoxious. We encountered black capped chickadees for the first time.

 “Oh, aren’t they cute,” we gushed. “Listen to their cute Dee Dee Dee and Chicka-dee-dee calls” we cooed. When we set up a bird feeder my wife approved of chickadees’ good manners. Chickadees take one sunflower seed at a time and discreetly fly off into the woods to peck the shell open or hide it in a secret stash.

As we noticed a resemblance, my daughter and I nicknamed Mrs. Random “Chickadee” or “Dee Dee” for short. Like the birds, she is small, cute, and full of spirit; sometimes very quiet; at other times forthrightly proclaiming her judgments to the world.

Random Daughter and I bought her a Sandra Boynton mug with the caption, “Everyone is entitled to my opinion.” The mug shows a picture of a grumpy cat, but listen to a chickadee telling the world “what’s what” from a tree branch some time and you will get the idea.

But chickadees aren’t just making a lot of noise when you hear them calling. They have a very complicated, highly developed vocabulary. One scientist describes chickadees as having, “…one of the most sophisticated and subtle communication systems yet discovered.”

My wife and I have been reading a book titled Mr. Picky and Me: Lessons from a Master Chickadee. The book combines a smidgeon of new age “woo woo” (something I find irritating) with quite a bit of close and astute observation of an assertive alpha chickadee the author hand-fed for an extended period of time. If the average chickadee is fairly smart (as their complex calls suggest), and very tough (as their survival in a tough, modern world full of hawks, owls, crows, jays, and starlings suggests), the author presents “Mr. Picky” as a Dirty Harry among chickadees: bold, daring, cunning, brave, and articulate in equal degrees. Her book leaves the impression it was not so much a case of her taming the bird as Mr. Picky bending her to his will.

At about the same time, my wife noticed the finches. Whereas chickadees have good table manners by Mrs. Random’s standards, the finches offend her mightily. The finches sit at the feeder and methodically crunch their way through one sunflower seed after another, dropping shells as they go, “like little piggies” to my wife’s critical eye.

“They’re just birds,” I remonstrated with her. “It’s just in their genes to eat that way.”

“Hmph,” said my little chickadee.

Finches like sunflower seeds well enough, but thistles are their favorite food. The other day we talked about getting some thistles for the finches. If the finches occupy themselves with thistles, there might be a few more black oil sunflower seeds for the daintily dining chickadees to get in their polite, one at a time manner. Chickadees are the equivalent of people who drink their tea with elegant manners.

When I picked up some oil sunflower seeds from the bulk bird food bins at the hardware store, I purchased thistles as well. When I got home, I was immediately locked in the dog house.

“I was just joking about the thistles,” my wife told me indignantly.

“We already have thistles growing all over the place,” my wife chastised me severely. “They’re one of the most obnoxious weeds we have out here. The finches are such messy eaters; they will scatter thistle seeds all over the place. We will have thistles sprouting everywhere! I’m not putting any of them out!” she concluded in the tone that threatened capital punishment for disobedience.

I said, “Maybe these thistles seeds are dead, and don’t sprout.” My wife dismissed my optimistic rejoinder with firm contempt. There was no doubt in her mind that I was going to spread weed delinquency infestations throughout the entire island, if not the entire Continental United States while I was at it.

Fortunately for marital happiness, we had been invited to the Friendly Neighbors for dinner. They served us delightful alder-smoked salmon. Mr. Friendly Neighbor explained a fisherman friend of theirs had caught the salmon and donated it to him because Mr. FN had saved his marriage. Friend had sat on a table and broken it after friend’s wife had explicitly asked hubbie not sit on the table. Mr. FN, a skillful woodworker, had repaired the table and grateful fisherman friend had provided him the salmon. Mr. FN was on a marriage-saving roll.

Outside the Friendly Neighbors’ window hung a big net bag of thistle with finches happily pecking and chowing down. My wife asked, “Don’t the thistle seeds start thistle plants everywhere?”

“No,” Mr. FN with assurance. (He used to work for the Boy Scouts, so he speaks with assurance on many practical topics.) “This is ‘Niger Thistle’; it doesn’t sprout here. “

So I am out of the dog house. I owe Mr. FN; the finches will owe me, not to mention the chickadees.

 

 

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4 Responses to “Etiquette Among the Birds”

  1. truce Says:

    “it doesn’t sprout here” are the famous last words every horticulturalist since Joseph Banks has rightly feared. Especially here in Australia where the natives are rapidly being pushed out by accidentally introduced weeds from Europe and North America.

    You’d be amazed how persistent the average weed can be. Chickadees have nothing on them.

  2. modestypress Says:

    truce, you would take my wife’s side in this, wouldn’t you? All right, gang up on me.

    Our ecosystem on our Puget Sound island is essentiall a temperate zone jungle. I do understand how persistent the average weed is. They compete with chipmunks to sneak into our house in the morning.

    Ooga booga, bang, bang.


  3. The question is whether you should go fishing to thank him or not. Amusing post,as always.

  4. spectrum2 Says:

    Have Mr. Friendly neighbor make you a table out of thistle. Win-win.


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