On the Manners in Nature…


We are well into fall here at Sugarberry Slope, and deep winter is not far away. While spring, summer and early fall provide a cornucopia of food for the wide variety of critters that call Sugarberry home, I am compelled to supplement in late fall and winter. Fruit past its prime, last week’s seeded bread, the discarded parts of vegetables we don’t eat join the bird seed mix and deer corn on the wild life food buffet.

Whenever I see a blue jay, and I see plenty here every day, I think of my Grandma Exie Montgomery. She had a active dislike for the large lovely birds. “Oh, those hateful jaybirds,” she would snap when she noticed them at the bird bath. She thought the jays were rude bullies and stole food from the smaller birds. “They take more than their fare share,” she said.

Grandma had a habit of throwing stale white bread out in the early evening and we would sit together on the porch and watch the neighborhood birds come in for dinner. Robins, brown sparrows, bright finches and the flashy cardinals would all arrive and take a piece of bread, then fly away to eat it from the treetops. What bothered Grandma was when those big blue birds took the larger pieces and flew off.

“See there?” she’d point out. “That darned jay is taking too much!” The blue jays assaulted Grandma’s sense of fair play and she complained more about them than Grandpa did of the squirrels eating his pecans. Grandpa Harvie had a vendetta against the squirrels and was always coming up with new ways to – at least temporarily – keep them out of the pecan tree. Grandma just complained about the blue jays until all the bread was eaten and the sun had set. It was the best strategy she had come up with.

That is, until one summer evening, as we sat on the porch watching the birds, I noticed a smirk on her face. I gave her a puzzled look.

“Watch that jay,” she said pointing at the large azure bird pecking at a stale dinner roll.

“What am I looking for?”

“I soaked the bread in water,” she laughed as the blue jay few off. She slapped her knee and threw back her head in glee. “Now he can only take what he gets in his beak!” Grandma was so pleased with herself, having forced the blue jays to share the bread. She couldn’t have been prouder of her own cleverness if she had come up with the solution to world hunger.

Watching the blue jays from my own front porch, my experience is different than Grandma’s was.

First, my feeders are supplied with fruits, nuts, and seeds – what the birds would naturally forage and eat. I think Grandma would be horrified at the amount of money I spend on good seed mixes for the birds. She grew up during the Great Depression when non-producing animals got discarded scraps – and they should be thankful to get that. But, I am trying to develop an eco-system out here where the reliance on feeders is minimal. Nature does provide for its own, as long as people do not interfere.

Black oil sunflower seeds are a blue jay favorite.

Second, I don’t think the jays are being rude. I think they are just being jays. If the blue jays have any issues, it is with their own kind, as I never see two males on the feeder at once. The jays are larger than the other birds at the feeder (the crows hang out at the corn dispenser), and when they land on the feeders the smaller birds usually fly away. But it seems more the little birds’ idea, out of respect, rather than being bullied. Such is also the case with the cardinals and the woodpeckers; large birds arrive, small birds leave.

From my constant observance, I see that the yellow warblers and titmouses (or is it titmice?), as well as the cardinals will eat communally at the feeder, but none of them stay very long. The feeders are like a drive through restaurant for the birds, they take a seed and fly up to the tree tops to eat it. Sometimes the tiny finches beat the larger seeds against the side of the feeder to crack them, but just as often they save that task for when they move back to the trees. I have not noticed any fighting at the feeders. All my feathered friends just take their turn and move on. They don’t gorge on the feed, they take only what they need and fly away. This is not the Vatican, there are no overweight cardinals here.

A cardinal couple.
A northern cardinal couple.

I hear people talk about inventive ways to keep squirrels out of their bird feeders. The internet is full of new contraptions to solve that problem. YouTube has plenty of videos featuring squirrels and their experiences with those solutions – some are pretty comical. The complaint is that the squirrels are eating all the seeds and spilling the rest, leaving nothing for the birds. I’ve not noticed that. The squirrels do occasionally come to my feeders but they have 11 acres of pecan and oak trees from which to forage as well. The feeders swing, of course, and the squirrel’s weight causes the feeder to topple and the contents to spill out. It would be silly to assume the squirrel made all this effort to get to the feeder only to intentionally spill the seeds out on the ground. He’s not rude, he’s just clumsy. Also, he is not opposed to eating seeds off the ground. Conversely, neither are the birds.

The squirrels, like the birds, seem only to take what they need before moving on. Along with their lack of gracefulness, they seem to lack malice as well. For this reason, I have no desire to prevent them from having an apple or piece of grapefruit if they like. It goes against my nature to feed one species and wage war on another. Everyone deserves to eat if they are hungry.

A brown squirrel and a tufted titmouse; two species sharing resources.

In the 18 months we were building our home Sugarberry Slope, we had a game camera set up to see what kind of wildlife we might expect when we moved in. We put the camera up near the deer feeder (intended just to feed the deer, not to trick them into being shot). What we witnessed was truly fascinating. Raccoons and opossums were eating right alongside the deer and each other. There was no conflict at all. Small bucks were sharing the space with larger bucks. Little gray foxes appeared every now and then, picking up a few kernels of corn. There was no battle between any of them.

Not only are the wild critters of Sugarberry Slope courteous to each other, they seem to respect my boundaries as well. I put out pieces of fruits and vegetables regularly for those that come to the feeder, and very little of my vegetable garden is eaten by wildlife, certainly not enough to matter. The crows wait for my once weekly toss out of the past weeks’ homemade seeded bread, in return they keep the raptors from my chicken pen. Speaking of chickens, I haven’t lost a single one to predation. Those few that have died simply because hens just decide to up and die sometimes, I have placed down near the fox dens. By giving their bodies to feed baby foxes, I count on the foxes to stay out of the hen house; and they have.

This politeness in nature fascinates me. We humans are, purportedly, the superior species but yet we will ding another person’s car and just drive away without a thought. Some of us can’t seem to remember to return our shopping carts or cover our mouths when we cough. If given the incorrect change from the cashier most of people will only address it if they are shorted but will ignore the mistake if it is in their favor.

I know that violence and death does occur in nature, I witnessed a mountain lion leaping at a deer a few weeks ago (deer got away), but that is not rude, that is survival. You don’t see a mountain lion wasting his energy just to hurt the feelings of his prey. The fox doesn’t kill cottontails just for fun. Snakes eat the field mice as soon as they kill them, they don’t commit mass killings and store the bodies for later. Humans stand in line at all-you-can-eat buffets and only leave when they can’t breathe. Humans turn violent over Black Friday deals for things we don’t really need. Geese mate for life, and humans cheat on their spouses.

I wish humans were more like the critters at Sugarberry.

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