Bird feeder dynamics

The house finches, with their red heads or streaked feathers and flirty chirps, flit among the branches of the trees around the porch. They are the rulers of the feeder. Two or three at a time, they descend upon the feeders. They cling to the cylindrical wire, picking out one seed at a time, cracking it to get at the oily meat inside, dropping the shell parts all around, then picking out another seed. One or two of them come to the gazebo-shaped feeder, sitting comfortably in the seed tray, calling to the others between snacks. The young ones don’t know yet how to crack through the tough sunflower shells, they just turn the seeds around in their beaks, eventually dropping them on the ground and eyeing the adults for pointers. The goldfinches come to the feeder in pairs. The male takes a couple of seeds while the female sits on a branch nearby, then he hops down to the porch railing or floor to pick through shells while the female takes her turn at the feeder.

Occasionally a mourning dove comes to pick through the shells as well. A nuthatch takes one seed at a time and flies to a nearby branch to eat it, then darts back to the feeder, as long as the finches haven’t taken over. Lazuli buntings used to visit the feeder as well, earlier in spring, but either they return unnoticed, they’ve moved on to a different locale, or they’ve been scared away by the pushier birds.  Meanwhile, the squirrels take their turn as the others watch warily. The furry flightless visitors grab onto the wire rungs with their back feet and pick seeds out with their front paws. The birds dare not disturb. Among the scurry and bustle at the seed feeder, the hummingbirds, those real-life fairies of the wooded neighborhood, dart about, peeping and chasing each other. When the seed feeder is empty, the hummers buzz by, hovering at the plastic yellow flower, sipping the sweet water through needle-thin beaks with long tongues. The finches are the busy-bodied common-folk, the mourning doves  the wallflowers, the squirrels the pushy interlopers, the hummingbirds the magical sprites.

What do they think of each other? Do the other birds find the hummers so mystical? Do they pay attention to each other, or are they concerned only with others of their species? Can they understand each others’ languages? What do the robins, those insect- and fruit-eaters who have no use for the swaying feeders, think of the chaos on the porch? These feathered and furred residents share a whole wide world, making use of different levels of the forest, crossing paths with few close encounters. When they all come together to share food from the same source, do they take notice? When they’re used to scavenging for food, relying on their wits and instincts to find tasty morsels, how  do things change when they find a reliable source, seemingly unending? Do they still feel a competitive twinge? Or does this all happen without effort, seamlessly adapting to new lunch counters and different faces, as they have for millions of years?



It’s late, and not yet dark. Night has been delayed. On the road since morning, still hours from home. A lot has happened in this day. Soulful songs play on repeat as the golden light washes everything a shade of brilliance. The sun hovers over the cliffs that look down upon the river plain, for now a late spring hue of green, soon to be golden in its own right. A snake indeed, this river, slithering past the sagebrush and the dry grasses. The world I came from seems a faint memory already, and I’ve only just left. I have returned this way before, hurrying to beat back the cold wind and the night sky, this place still foreign and strange. But on this golden day, the land sings along with the soulful song. I have been seduced. It feels good to be home.

This wondrous place, our solar system

We know the other planets are out there. They shine like the brightest stars in our night sky, and occasionally our advanced space technology photographs them in all their glory, revealing to our eyes what we cannot see. Venus is our brightest non-sun star, and because it orbits between the Earth and the sun, we see its phases plainly, a rounded bump when on the far side of the sun and a glowing corona of atmosphere when it stands between Earth and the star we share. We feel a kinship with Venus, a planet nearly our size, though the similarities end there. Smothered in an atmosphere 93 times as massive as ours, it lacks our dynamism, with no plate tectonics to rearrange its visage. Venus is the hell we dream of.

Venus transected the sun yesterday. With the right equipment and a clear sky, Earth’s twin could be seen floating as a small pinprick in front of the hulking sun, the speck of dust a seeming accidental blip in the projector shining light on our canvas. This stirred our imaginations. Usually, we zoom along through space, aware that there are other planets out there somewhere, but they don’t seem quite real, even when seen through a telescope. It’s as if someone placed a dramatic rendering of the planet right over the end of the scope at the precise moment we look through it. We have to trust that it’s really there. But when Venus crosses the sun, we have confirmation that we are not alone. Like when wandering in the forest, we know that there are other hikers out there somewhere – we saw their cars at the trailhead – but we haven’t seen them, so we hum a tune and talk to the birds, turning round and round to take in the view. We think we have the place to ourselves, until we hear a crunch behind us and turn to see one of those elusive hikers coming up from behind, so we move to the side of the trail, pretend to fiddle with our camera or water bottle, then wait until the hiker has gained sufficient ground before heading onward, alone again to enjoy our surroundings. It will be 105 years before we see another hiker, and it will be Venus again. Mercury can be seen from Earth as a star, but its diminutive stature and close proximity to our star ensure that although it crosses the sun every seven years, we will never have Transit of Mercury parties. The planet’s trek is simply unnoticeable to our naked eyes.

Little Mercury…and yet, we are so small. In 4 billion years, when our Milky Way galaxy, in which we are but a tiny speck, finally collides with the Andromeda galaxy next door, our inflated sense of self-importance will be scarcely a blip in time. Nearly that long ago, Earth was just an infant, our own tectonics just beginning to churn. With single-celled organisms just emerging, we were only one step ahead in the evolutionary process of where Venus is now. And somehow we got here, to this wondrous place, which we threaten to destroy long before that intergalactic corporate merge. So we must celebrate the little things like planetary transits, to remind us of our size and the company we keep, for when Milky Way and Andromeda come to dance together for a good long while, we want to have someone around to tell their children all about it.