Simply Lou: Watch the Birdie!
Article and Illustration by Lou Davenport
A few years ago at a family get together, we played a game called “What’s your Secret?” I’m a fairly “open book,” but I did write down something that I thought many of them would not know. “I am a bird watcher!” Nobody guessed.
Now, I’m not nearly as avid a “bird watcher” as I used to be. In my neighborhood now, there aren’t nearly as many interesting species as I enjoyed when I lived in Vicksburg. But I still like to watch the ones that are! There’s a little hummingbird that loves the red honeysuckle that grows right outside my window. Blue Jays and Mockingbirds enjoy splashing around in my bird bath. They also “pester” my cats which makes me laugh. I have a feeder in the backyard for cardinals. Did you know they are the first and last species of bird to feed each day at feeders? And, some kinds of birds won’t come to a feeder at all.
When I lived in Vicksburg, I had a friend who kept telling me about the birds that came to her feeder or what kind of bird she’d seen somewhere. It got my interest so I bought a feeder and hung it from a branch right outside the living room window. It didn’t take long for the birds to find it and then, I was hooked.
Vicksburg, being on the Mississippi River, sits right on one of the four major “fly ways” across the United States. Migratory birds usually follow waterways. I also lived on a lake and that was an added bonus. It wasn’t long before I had some binoculars and “Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds.” (In my opinion, it’s still the best book you will ever find about identifying birds).
By all the notations in my guide, it seems it was 1988 when I went “bird crazy.” Every bird I saw and identified, I’d write the date beside its picture. After a few years, several birds seemed to show up on nearly the same day each year! I am a “stickler” for identifying them. I learned all about wing bars, beak shapes, tail shapes, top knots or “not,” and habitats. I learned what species lived in my area year round, in the winter or just the summer.
Purple Martins were the first migrants to arrive each year. A neighbor had a “martin house” so I knew when they showed up, other species would soon follow. I’d get excited when I saw the first hummingbird of the year and readied their feeder.
Business at my bird feeder at the window began to “get busy,” too. Besides my “year round residents,” the “summer vacationers” would begin to arrive.
Sitting on my deck with my binoculars, I saw my first “Prothonotory Warbler.” It remains my favorite bird. It always arrived in April and nested somewhere around the lake. They are so yellow, they almost glow. It’s a big name for such a tiny bird. Two other beautiful species were around the lake each year, a pair of “Orchard Orioles” and a pair of “Great Crested Flycatchers!” The Orioles built a “cup shaped” nest in a little oak tree by our house. I never could find where those “Flycatchers” nested though. I usually got a glimpse of “Summer Tanagers” on their way to their nesting grounds.
There were some “entertaining” birds around the lake year round. There was a post in the lake that a large “Kingfisher” claimed. They are such fun to watch when they dive for fish. There was a “Great Blue Heron” and a “Green Heron” that “fished” around out back. The “Green Heron” had orange legs and “lurched” along as he crept up on fish. “He” also made the strangest clicking noise when he was stalking.
When the weather would start to cool, the migrations would start again. All kinds of ducks found our lake. Some stayed for the winter, others would just rest and be on their way. A flock of “Ring Necked Ducks” always came in but stayed out in the middle of the lake. Several Canadian Geese came in one day and stayed. They were still residents when I moved!
“Goldfinch” would arrive at the feeder and “fuss” with all the other birds. “Purple and House Finch” were there, too. Through the years, I noticed that there were a lot more “House Finch” than “Purple Finch” and figured out why. “House Finch” are bullies. Little “Junkos” or “snow birds” came and will only eat seeds on the ground. Among all the birds would be plenty of “Carolina Chickadees,” “Tufted Titmice,” and “Cardinals.” Chicka-dee-dee-dee!
Speaking of woodpeckers, I got to see all kinds of them! The “Pileated Woodpecker”is huge and loud! It is said that “Woody the Woodpecker” was fashioned after them. There’s a little one called a “Downy Woodpecker” and in-between sizes such as “Red Headed Woodpecker,” “Red-Bellied Woodpecker” and the “Common Flicker.” It is also theorized that the “Ivory Billed Woodpecker”may be extinct. Nobody knows for sure, but, they have become a legend to birders and are called “The Ghost Bird” or “The Elvis Bird!”
We were “fortunate” to have three white geese who thought our backyard was “theirs.” No need for an alarm system, they “honked” their honkers loudly if anything or anybody dared come in “their” backyard! I saw them chase people just trying to fish! We kept them fed on cracked corn so we were safe!
We added to the “waterfowl” population by incubating some “muscovy duck” eggs. They aren’t the most attractive of ducks, but, oh, they were fun! Every egg hatched and we put them on our back porch. Every day I had to hose down the floor, er poop. When it was time for them to swim on their own, I led them down to the lake. I scooped each one up and put them in the water. They swam around and I turned to go back. They followed me! I was their DUCK MAMA! It took awhile for me to convince them I wasn’t. They all grew up and would come sit on the deck with me while I drank coffee. When I left, my “children” were still there!
I thought I had become pretty knowledgeable about birds and there was a local “bird watching” group called “The Vicksbirders.” They always went on the annual “Christmas Bird Count” and on field trips down South. I thought that would be a great group to join. WRONG! Oh, they were all very nice people, but, I knew I was a “first grader” among “Ph.D’s” the first and only meeting I attended. These people used the “scientific names” to speak about birds! I was in way over my head! Did you know a “Blue Jay” is a Cyanocitta cristata? Well, I didn’t either. I could tell they had all seen some amazing birds, but I just didn’t know what kinds. I learned quickly that a degree in ornithology was not going to be in my future and it was too damn cold to go out “counting birds.” I am happy with my “amateur standing.”
I lived for a short while in Jackson Parish and saw some interesting birds. I finally saw a flock of “Indigo Buntings’ that are the most vivid shade of blue. I saw a “Blue Grosbeak” and had a large flock of “Rose Breasted Grosbeaks” come to my feeder. And I got to see my one and only “Painted Bunting.”
When I worked at the Masur Museum, a flock of “Cedar Waxwings” flew over just as my co-worker Lenard and I were walking from the museum back door to the Carriage House. In a split second, they started “carpet bombing” us after their lunch of mulberries! Lenard was, and is always, impeccably dressed and that day he had on a white dress shirt. He started running and hollering “They’re Poopin’ Lou! They’re Poopin!” He didn’t get one speck on him but since I was laughing at him … well, they got me! Watch out for flocks of them!
Up on Bayou Bartholomew, my cousins, Judi and Margaret are living in “bird heaven.” Right now there’s a flock of “Whistling Ducks” that enjoy being fed by everyone. Those ducks are smart and know a “good thing when they find it!” I had never seen them before! I got to add a new bird to my “life list,” which I hadn’t added to in several years.
Sometimes as a parent, you don’t think you influence your children very much. But, lo and behold, my daughter Paige got interested in birds. I got her the newest edition of Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds! I bought my daughter Carolyn a bird feeder for her birthday since she, too, has gotten interested in birds. I see a field trip with the daughters to Black Bayou soon. Now, if I can just get my buddy Burg to tell me where he sees all those “Painted Buntings” he photographs!
See y’all next month!
Illustration based on original woodblock print by Lisa Brawn