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Lessons at the Bird Bath


It’s hard to know how to intervene appropriately in nature.

I am referring to feeding the birds around my home. When I first moved here, there was a desolate feel to the property, which had sat vacant for about five years. There is a lot of open land in the development, and the lot behind me is vacant, adorned only by the occasional juniper. I hung a bird feeder on the tree beyond my coyote fence, and after what seemed like a surprisingly long time, birds began to appear. Soon I added a birdbath, and it was fun to watch the pigeons, sparrows, and purple finches begin to visit. Doves arrived late in the spring, and then mountain bluebirds and western scrub jays passed through.

After a while, brown squirrels with almond-shaped eyes began to appear, and they sipped from the birdbath and became gymnasts on the juniper, harvesting from the bird feeder. Ground squirrels multiplied, and the entrances to burrows both small and large aerated the sandy soil. My property was now full of life and interest, but some of it was tragic.

Various birds crashed into my window and died on the portal–a dove, a goldfinch, several sparrows, and a pigeon. I felt badly. I wanted to provide for them, not put them in danger. And then, of course, a variety of hawks began to game the system, including a red tail and a Cooper’s hawk. Things were getting complicated.

Over winter, only the birds visited while all else hibernated. And then this spring, I began to realize that I had created a problem. I had attracted quite a community, and the land around my home was now riddled with holes that seemed to be getting bigger and bigger and threatening some of my utility devices. I had to face the need to begin to retreat on my hospitality, and I have begun gradually to reduce the amount of seed I put out, hoping all the creatures will venture farther afield. I worry about having to deprive them just as breeding season begins.

This reminds me of an observation I made about prairie dogs in Frenchy’s Park in Santa Fe. There is a big open field where the prairie dogs roamed and a small area in the middle of the parking lot where a “save-the-prairie dog” group left food for a little community. My elderly dog loved the excitement of their emergence and chatter when we walked there several years ago. Then the day came when I realized that the prairie dogs were getting so fat they could hardly move. People were leaving piles of lettuce and watermelon and vegetables near their burrows, and they had become avid diners. The next time I dropped by the pet shop where the prairie dog lovers collected donations, I told the owner, “You’ve got to get them to back off. The prairie dogs are becoming morbidly obese!”

We had the Las Conchas fire nearby last year, which burned up over 150,000 acres, and I hate to think how much wildlife perished. We continue to be in a drought that seems only to deepen, and development around here will continue, so the amount of wildlife will inevitably diminish. I think I will focus mainly on the birdbath as time goes on; because the wild creatures will be best served, I guess, by adjusting their numbers to the food naturally available. An important lesson for all of us perhaps.


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