Thursday, March 5, 2009

(Nearly) 100 Birds

Winter is on its way out.

I'm still not used to the rhythm of the seasons out here. Back in California, winter (what there was of it) ceded its way gradually to spring: days and nights got gradually warmer, the hills would shift from pale green to the bright yellow and purple and pink of wildflowers. And of course, the White-crowned Sparrows would gradually drift off to their breeding grounds, and Western Tanagers, Bullock's and Hooded Orioles, and Hermit Warblers would take their place in the hearts and minds of local birders.

And here? For the past few weeks, it seemed as if spring and winter had been duking it out in some cosmic battle for control. When I leave the house in the morning, temperatures are in the 30s or low 40s. When I get back in the afternoon, they're in the 80s. Today, I met with an out-of-town consultant in my office, and he said that when he arrived in Gainesville yesterday, he wondered why everyone was wandering around in short sleeves while lugging around heavy winter coats. After spending a night here, he figured out why.

I'm not sure what the migration rhythm of the local birds is supposed to be like out here, either. Someone told me that spring tends to start early in Florida, but I haven't seen any interesting migrant birds yet. Still, I've been hearing a lot more singing--probably year-round residents whose songs I haven't figured out yet—and there are definitely signs of nesting activity. On a nearly bird-less walk on Sunday, I found this nest hole: from the freshness of the leaves, it must have been settled fairly recently:

In the meantime, there have been reports that the local wintering birds are starting to take off. Most of the Sandhill Cranes have left Paynes Prairie, but some still remain in the field across the street from my place. Local birders have also reported that the number of wintering Chipping Sparrows at their feeders is starting to decline. I suspect that this is because they are now all at MY feeder!

For the past few weeks, I've had a noticeable uptick in birds in my little courtyard. Usually, I need to refill the feeder about once every 10 days or so. Last month, this interval dropped to once every week. And on Monday I left the house with the feeder three-fourths full, and came home to find it almost completely empty!

At first, I was angry; I figured one of my neighbors or some maintenance person took umbrage at the idea of the thing and emptied it out of spite. But only minutes after I refilled it, about a dozen chippers lunged at it, followed by a pair of Northern Cardinals, dive-bombing Carolina Wrens, and scolding Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice.

For the last few days, I've been coming home to an empty feeder, which would be swarmed as soon as I refilled it and stepped out of the courtyard. Yesterday afternoon, a pair of Carolina Chickadees were perched in a tree just above me, scolding me loudly as I refilled the feeder: "Hurry up, we're hungry here!" they seemed to be saying.

In many Chinese homes (including my parents' place) hangs a large painting or embroidery featuring dozens of stylized birds--there are supposed to be 100 of them. Having 100 birds at your house, according to tradition, is supposed to be a sign of good luck.

I already feel lucky to have the little guys around. But I do hope that they'll bring me more; they're eating me out of house and home!

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