Slayton: Backyard birds

Print More

(HOST) Commentator and amateur birder Tom Slayton often travels long distances to see birds – but often he finds the most interesting ones in his own back yard.

(SLAYTON) In the faint light of dawn I heard that brisk, distinctive pounding: like someone with a tiny ball peen hammer: ratta tatta tat-tat-tat. It slowed down at the end, and I knew immediately who it was:

"He’s baaaack!" I said softly to Elizabeth, just barely awake beside me.

Actually, I was more happy than annoyed about the noise. It meant that for the third year in a row our resident yellow-bellied sapsucker had found our wooden fence acceptable and was drumming out his message of love and territorial aggression to all other woodpeckers within earshot.

As the coffee brewed, I looked out at our backyard fence. There he was, on exactly the same wooden board he had chosen last year and the year before. Eventually, he gave up and flew off. I wondered if his neck was tired.

Maybe he’s already found a mate and started a flock of little sapsuckers, maybe not. Ultimately, I don’t know how he’s doing in the romance department. It’s just one of the many pleasant little mysteries that the birds in my back yard bring. I am not on a mountainside, or even a dirt road. I live only about three blocks from the Vermont State House and downtown Montpelier. But year-in, year-out, the birds I see in my back yard keep me in touch with nature’s current events in every season.

I always know spring has really arrived when our great crested flycatcher shows up and begins shrieking his loud call from atop the various neighborhood trees. I like hearing him. His voice is full of wildness and energy and life, a reminder that the natural world still works – some of it, anyway.

Most of the birds that come to our backyard are pretty common, but there have been surprises. One rainy May day, I looked out a second story window at the top of our crabapple tree, and there, looking back at me, was a blackburnian warbler – amazing! This bright little warbler looks like he just had a can of orange paint dumped over his head. Even on that cold, rainy May morning, his bright yellow and orange plumage seemed to glow from within. It brightened the entire day for me.

And then there was the winter day when I came home for lunch and  happened onto one of nature’s primordial dramas. There was a small hawk – a fierce little sharp-shinned hawk – busily tearing a hapless starling to bits. One life was ended, another was sustained, and life itself moved on.

Most of my backyard encounters are less dramatic, and less bloody. And most of the birds I see are far from rare. But that doesn’t make their lives any less interesting or meaningful.

Nature isn’t something exotic that lives apart from the lives we live. It is our close neighbor – as close, in fact, as our own skin. And  watching the birds, common and uncommon, that share my back yard not only gives me constant pleasure – it allows me to get a first-hand look at the incredibly profound, powerful forces – right under our noses – that make our world go.

Comments are closed.