Missions Possible

Photo of a Cardinal by Russell Sutherland on Unsplash; red crest, red body, sharply contrasting dark color around the eyes.
Photo by Russell Sutherland on Unsplash

The season is early winter, the day, a weekend, and the time, mid-morning, bright and sunny.

I sit down in our porch/sunroom in the august company of our feline fur-babies and peek outside through the large glass panes with the express purpose of watching nature —partly at the insistence of my wife, and partly… Well, today is a special day.

An avid gardening enthusiast, my biologist wife has a connection with nature that sadly eludes me mostly. But today must be, needs to be, is going to be different. For, by the end of tomorrow, I am mandated to submit an essay for my graduate writing class, and the essay is to be focused on nature.

Our esteemed instructor has enjoined: “Go somewhere and observe nature for at least an hour. What do you notice going on in the world? What do you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? What are some trends you notice? Pick things up, look at the shapes of things. Observe nature happenings from a distance or up close. Be quiet and listen.

I am way outside my comfort zone. From my high school biology days, I have been so engrossed by both large mammals — including humans, other primates, and elephants — and microscopic life forms that I’ve never developed an interest in the whole Kingdom Plantae, beyond the very basic macroscopic observations of color, smell, contrasts, et cetera.

As a result, I do not have the eyes to notice the kind of minute, delicate details that are woven into the tapestry of great nature essays. But I soldier on in the hope that this course will help me imbibe that skill and give me the freedom to write — and write well — about, quite literally, everything under the sun.

My wife had read somewhere that migratory birds need some special care in the winter, when natural sources of seeds are exhausted and food types are limited in availability, and had promptly ordered from Amazon a couple of bags of bird food — Wagner’s 13008 Deluxe Wild Bird Food, it had said at the site — and a contraption called a panorama bird feeder. The “deluxe” food may not be optimal or most nutritious for all bird species (according to some of the expert opinions she read), but it was a good start.

The items had arrived the next day. The feeder looks like a transparent glass cylinder sitting on a metallic tray; the tray flowers out into a metal grille. The edge of the cylinder touching the tray is not continuous, but cleverly incomplete, leaving holes through which seeds placed in the cylinder from the top can bit by bit pour out onto the tray. There is a metallic wire that runs from the bottom of the tray traversing the cylinder out through a metal cap, with a loop at the other end. The loop can be used to hang the feeder from, say, a pole, whereas the tray grille works like a perch for our feathered friends to sit and partake of the delicious mix of sunflower and other seeds.

Today is the day we hang the feeder, now full of multicolored seeds courtesy Herr Wagner, from a hooked overhang attached to a pole standing at the border delineating our and our neighbor’s backyards. We have been eyeing the arrangement ever since we bought the house and moved in. Now it comes to fruition. The loop goes around the hook; I pull the feeder a little and release it to make sure it’s stable. The height of the feeder bottom is about 5 and a half feet from the ground. Apparently, this structure makes it proof from squirrels and other opportunists from stealing the seeds.

We make ourselves comfortable with a cup of coffee each and wait for the show to begin. I realize I haven’t a clue as to what to expect. How will the birds even know that there’s food? Will they like what we put in? Would this help . . .

A sharp elbow from my wife breaks me out of a snooze. “Look, look!” she says. Whoa. It’s happening! I spy a very chirpy, all red, largish bird with a long tail, prominent red crest with dark colors around eyes looking like a mask. Ready with Google on her iPhone, my wife tells me it’s a male Northern Cardinal. I have heard its loud, chirpy call — this one is probably an inhabitant of the densely branched tree that we inherited along with our backyard from the previous owners — but I had never seen one before.

Although the Cardinal seems to have gotten the first dibs from the topmost perch, on the other side of the perch is a dazzling blob of yellow, sporting dark wings and a black forehead; I learn that this is an American goldfinch, a breeding male too. Apparently, the non-breeding males of this species are terribly drab to look at. It seems to be minding its own business, intensely concentrating on filling up from the tray. I wonder if there is a hierarchy between the cardinal and the goldfinch, because from my position, the cardinal appears to be sitting on the first rung of the grille, and the goldfinch, on the second.

Not at the feeder, but expectantly hovering nearby, is a smallish bird with rust-colored belly and vivid blue-tinged head and wings. My wife tells me it’s the Eastern Bluebird, an adult male. They are to be found in Maryland year-round, and they may or may not migrate in winter. But why is this one hovering and not trying to get into a position at the tray?

I notice there are a couple of house sparrows on the ground, pecking at something. House sparrows with their rounded grey heads, light-dark brown and black feathers, and greyish underbody are a familiar sight in many places, including the English countryside and India. They are apparently extremely territorial and invasive as a species. But what are they pecking at? My binoculars come in handy; jostling of the feeder by the birds trying to get at the seeds has resulted in seeds being copiously dropped on ground below, laying out a buffet for the sparrows.

House sparrows are known to be unafraid of humans. I don’t know if our visitors are extra brave — but behold! There are a couple of largish squirrels with bushy tails who decide to join the fray. The sparrows don’t give a damn, though. The squirrel duo get busy with grabbing the fallen seeds with their forepaws and eating them sitting upright on their haunches. Damn… they are so cute!

Cat babies Clementine and Greything engrossed in the super-close, larger than life squirrel in a Video for Cats by wildlife photographer Paul Dinning on YouTube. Clementine wishes he could dive into the TV screen.
Our fur-babies enraptured by Paul Dinning’s Videos for Cats on YouTube; photo by author

I notice our cats watching with rapt attention the panorama outside unfold, their ears alternatingly flattening down and perking up. Both of them are indoor cats; this is the maximal extent of their interaction with nature, from behind the glass panes of our sunroom and occasionally via Videos for Cats on YouTube on our flat-screen. The videos, especially the spectacular ones made by wildlife photographer Paul Dinning, feature from up close lots of squirrels and birds of the wild moorlands of Cornwall, UK. I sometimes wonder if our fur-babies can make out the difference between outside birds and inside birds.

Blue Jay, captured with the iPhone camera through a binocular. Perched on the lower grill of a bird feeder. Tentatively deciding whether the menu was acceptable or not.
Briefly visiting Blue Jay at the feeder, captured with the iPhone camera through a binocular. Photo by author.

But the denouement is yet to come. It has been about 40–45 minutes. The Cardinal and the Goldfinch seem to have retired. A solitary Blue Jay paid a brief visit, but probably did not like what was on the menu; they apparently love peanuts. It’s long gone now. I do hear a raven’s caw from somewhere nearby, but I see none.

But oh, what do we have here — is this the Indiana Jones of squirrels? Tired of eating leftovers, this intrepid squirrel decides to take a stab at the source. With its beady eyes and hypermobile neck, it seems to estimate the distances and best trajectory to the feeder. It runs to and up the pole all the way to the top and tight-rope walks on the overhang to the end with the hook. Alas! The height of the wire on the top of the cap is such that while hanging, the cylinder of the feeder is out of the squirrel’s reach. What to do?

Our squirrelly neighbor decides to go all Mission Impossible on the feeder. Wrapping its tail around the overhang and grabbing its edge by the hind paws, it takes a dive, extends its body, and just manages to reach the rim of the seed-laden feeder tray with its forepaws. Victory!

I applaud. I call out to my wife, “Come, check out this grand scene!” But our Squirrel Cruise has already decamped with the delectables. So, she now must rely on my budding narrative skills to paint her a verbal picture. Who knows… this little endeavor might help free me from my shackles of fear of failing at writing? Hallelujah! Like the squirrel’s, this has been my Mission Possible. More than a grade in a course, might THIS be my first foot in the door to the enchanting world of nature writing?

Resources on Backyard Birds in Maryland:

1. Kress, S (2011) 11 tips for Feeding Backyard Birds. https://www.audubon.org/news/11-tips-feeding-backyard-birds

2. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s searchable online guide All About Birdshttps://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/

3. Birds of Maryland — https://dnr.maryland.gov/wildlife/Pages/plants_wildlife/mdbirds.aspx

4. Reasons to feed birds in winter and what to feed them — https://www.kaytee.com/learn-care/wild-bird/5-reasons-to-feed-backyard-birds-in-winter

Wannabe storyteller in science. Graduate of John Hopkins Science Writing MA program.

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Kausik Datta

Kausik Datta

Wannabe storyteller in science. Graduate of John Hopkins Science Writing MA program.

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