Saturday, December 23, 2017

Buoyant Backyard Birds

Our neighborhood in autumn is often full of riveting excitement. When we moved to this area in 2002, I pronounced it “bird heaven.” This judgment has not changed.   This morning as I took pen in hand to begin this post, I experienced a reprise of the rousing action in our back yard several weeks ago. Five or six robins were recapturing their earlier excitement. 

Our sun room overlooks a small valley several hundred feet to the northwest. When we first occupied our home fifteen years ago, our daughter observed that our home resembled a tree house. The valley was more clearly visible than today. In that time, the red cedar trees have grown taller and obscured much of the valley view. Close to our sunroom window are a chokecherry tree and several mulberry trees.

In late summer we noticed, for the first time in our residency, that many bunches of small purple wild grapes had developed on the grapevines which had utilized the chokecherry tree as a climbing venue. The vines were almost 40’ above the ground. When fall arrived, we estimated there were one or two bushels of miniature wild grape bunches.

When we spotted one or two robins in the tree in early November, we noticed that they seemed quite tentative with their grape consumption. Soon that hesitance ended. Over a few days, multitudes of mixed flock birds began to fly in and out, inspecting and eagerly consuming the newfound food source. The grapes provided not only nourishment but also inspired high energy social interaction among local flocks of single species as well as mixed species. The groups came often during a few weeks in November and early December. The birds satisfied their collective appetite for five or ten minutes, then quickly disappeared, only to suddenly reappear later. As the grapes aged, they became sweeter and tastier to our feathered friends. Red cedar “berries” were sometimes consumed for variety or perhaps as dessert.

Before an early December cold spell brought a sudden end to their fascinating back yard communal feeding exuberance, we observed visits from red-bellied woodpeckers, flickers, and chickadees as members of the collective feeding groups. Cedar waxwings and robins, however, were the main participants in the cooperative feeding mayhem. Blue jays watched from afar but did not participate in the vine feast. One flashy visitor—a pileated woodpecker—visited several times alone. This crow-sized, red-crested black and white beauty characterized by strong, slow wingbeats in flight was an eye-catching sight perched in our chokecherry tree.

In our tendency to anthropomorphize animal behavior, some of our observations might border on speculation. Some behaviors may be related to group survival. Or perhaps the birds actually enjoy each other’s company. In the case of our backyard birds, we have noted the existence of this cooperative seasonal support dynamic is more apparent in birds than mammals, especially in autumn when the reproductive season has concluded. The formal, objective study of animal behavior in their natural environment is termed ethology. Our observations were informal but valuable, nonetheless. We enjoyed noting that cedar waxwings and robins often share affinity with each other, not only for our neighborhood wild grape harvest season, but at other times as well. Our current post is an extension of the phenomenon we highlighted in two earlier posts:

The Bible’s poetic books contain exultations of the writers with respect to how events in the natural world give glory to the Creator. As observers we may offer conscious personal worship of the Creator. The difference is that humans are blessed with a high level of conscious awareness of the divine. Nevertheless, even inanimate matter offers its own sort of “worship.” The consciousness of animals exists on a higher plane. Their level of consciousness does not include awareness of God, but they were created with sensory awareness, various degrees of intelligence, and even a sense of humor.

In personal devotional moments we may muse about the various degrees of praise to God offered by different categories of created things. We close with the NLT translation of Psalm 66:4: “Everything on earth will worship you; they will sing your praises, shouting your name in glorious songs.”