When we got a bird feeder last winter, I thought we were setting ourselves up for something refined, relaxing, and educational. Watching and identifying the pretty little birds that came to the feeder while we sat at the dining-room table over our own meals would be rather like reading National Geographic as one enjoyed one's tea and cucumber sandwiches.
The reality has been educational, all right, but not quite in the way I was expecting. I wasn't ready for all the drama. The preening and showing off. The bitter sibling rivalries. The violence. The raiding. The multi-generational sense of entitlement. It's like watching professional wrestling or Desperate Housewives.
When you get to know them, birds are like people at a crowded cafe who are loud, pushy, and have terrible table manners. They fight over spots at the feeder, chasing one another off and using appalling language. Finches tolerate other finches but go after the chickadees. None of the smaller birds come near when the blue jays are eating. Wrens do their best to slip in and out under the other birds' radar. All this brawling surely must use up more energy than they get from the few sunflower seeds they manage to snatch in between scuffles.
In the past few weeks, we've had an increase in activity at the feeder. This surprised me at first, given that there are insects, ripe berries, and ripening seeds all over the neighborhood. Then I came to realize that most of the visitors, though full sized, are obviously adolescents. Some of their adult features, like the blue jays' distinctive topknots, aren't quite developed yet. They still have a fuzzy look, as if their feathers aren't fully grown out—or as if they just got out of bed in their dormitories and didn't bother with grooming.
What do you do when Mom and Dad shove you out of the nest? Go to the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet, of course. Why go search for seeds, bugs, and berries if you don't have to? "Chokecherries? That's sooo last year! Bugs? Eeeuuew! You go to all that work to catch one, and it still tastes like slug on a stick."
That's when the awful truth hit me. We have created an avian welfare state. A whole generation of birds in our back yard is learning to count on a handout. This year's adults have taught their children to come to the feeder. And next year, when these young ones have children of their own, it will be a multi-generational welfare system. That's assuming any of them survive, given their inadequate food-gathering skills.
We could just stop feeding the birds during the summer. But somehow, once we've started, it's hard to quit. It would feel terribly mean to cut off the food supply they've grown used to. Besides, we'd miss the birds. They may count on us for food, but we count on them for entertainment. Even now, as I'm in my office, my background music has been the chirps, whistles, and squawks from the deck outside the open window.
So I guess we'll just have to buy a bigger bag of bird seed. We may have created a welfare system here, but it's a cycle of dependency that goes both ways.