Thursday, December 18, 2008

Birds in the Garden - and How to Attract Them!

Our book today is Margaret McKenny's chatty, amiable little 1939 classic Birds in the Garden - and How to Attract Them, which features a Preface by Clyde Fisher from the American Museum of Natural History, several stunning color plates by Thomas S. Roberts, and best of all, page after page of Miss McKenny's enthusiastic, entirely sensible advice about the pleasures of birds in the garden.

There's a temptation, of course, to mock such books as this (a temptation P. G. Wodehouse yields to on more than one occasion, especially when the task falls to Jeeves to ghost-write a similar volume); after all, the world in 1939 had far more serious matters on its plate than various stratagems to lure birds into suburban gardens.

But the temptation should be resisted. Bird books have always been as decorous and largely benign as their subjects (with the slim and disturbing exception of T. H. White's The Goshawk), and there is a place in any world, no matter how dark, for both. Birds are like all other nonhuman animals in that they spend all day (as the famous wag once put it) going about their own business, but there are three key differences almost unique to them: they're very, very visible, they're uniformly beautiful, and large numbers of them have little or no aversion to interacting with mankind.

Miss McKenny recounts many dozens of stories about the charming insouciance of garden birds once they come to be familiar with their local humans - especially if those humans have made themselves known as sources of food. This is easy enough to confirm for yourself, even if you don't possess one of the fairly opulent private gardens that are Miss McKenny's standing assumption. A folding chair on a small porch will do - sit down, crumble up some bread on the floor around your feet, and chances are in fifteen minutes you'll have feathered company. Even as quick as a second consecutive day of this will suffice to make that hand-out expected. Leave a window open in the summer, and you'll very likely soon have birds flitting through your apartment, finding the kitchen, and looking for food:

A story told by Mr. Forbush in Birds of Massachusetts illustrates graphically how confiding birds may become and how much pleasure and entertainment may be derived from feeding them. He writes that a flock of 150 pine siskins, little striped brown birds, closely related to the goldfinches, had been fed all winter by Mr. Davis, and had grown very tame and confiding. The birds one morning were ready for breakfast long before he was awake, but there was no food in the trays. For a while the birds sat around in forlorn groups in the trees, then they began to fly into the open windows of Mr. Davis' bedroom. By this time he was awake but pretended to be still sleeping, so several of the siskins hopped on the bed and then came to his face and pulled at his hair. He still pretended to sleep, and they braced themselves and pulled still harder, and even began to tweak his nose and ears. One morning he covered his face with a cloth, leaving only a peephole, but one bird discovered the hole and tapped through it on his forehead. He then turned to the dish in which he kept the seed, and one little fellow lit on his hand and rode over on it so as to beat the others to the feast.

In fact, this particular phenomenon, this shared interspecies playfulness, is a continuing refrain not only in Miss McKenny's book but throughout the kinder side of man's treatment of birds. Avian life has always fascinated humans - in my opinion because the two are so much alike, with the same darting attentions, the same instantaneous inventiveness, many of the same silly priorities (fashion and home ownership, to name but two) - and Miss McKenny is quick to point out the ironic contrast involved in that:

When one thinks of the prevalent human attitude of hostility toward wild life, it seems amazing with what gentleness and kindness nearly everyone responds when one of our smaller birds shows confidence in approaching. [Forbush again] quotes the story of a farmer sitting on a snowdrift surrounded by a hundred redpolls, some of them feeding on scattered hayseed, some of them perched on his head and shoulders, and one on his knee. The farmer, one in his emotion with poet and philosopher, said that he had enjoyed himself more than at any other time he could remember.

Of course, Miss McKenny can be considerably more bloody-minded when it comes to bird-on-bird violence, as when she rhapsodizes about the sparrow hawk perhaps a trifle too enthusiastically:

This little hawk, reddish above and buffy below, with a chestnut crown on his bluish-gray head, is not much larger than a robin. Like the tree swallow, it has adapted itself to the ways of civilization and now nests quite frequently in a hollow tree on a village street, or in a birdbox in the garden. It is not only one of the most beautiful and brightly colored of the hawks, but one of the most useful. If, some morning, we hear its noisy "killee, killee" in our garden, we may know that we are sheltering the foe not only of insects but of meadow mice - those destroyers of tulip bulbs and girdlers of trees. Perhaps during the nesting season it may take an occasional song bird, but even then its prey usually is an English sparrow, which certainly we can spare without a pang.

But the real and abundant theme of Birds in the Garden is joy - the particular frequency of joy (small, illuminating, and, amazingly, innocent) that can be derived only from getting to know the birds. Even in Miss McKenny's most utilitarian passages (the book is full of useful diagrams of gardens and birdhouses, and useful lists of which birds are attracted to which plants, and in which season), that joy is right underneath the surface, waiting to burst forth, as in this account of mating practices of the common wren:

The male usually arrives first from the South. Immediately, if there is a suitable box he takes his stand upon it and from then on until the female arrives he spends his time casting his bubbles of song toward the sky to let all and sundry know about his territory. Between intervals of song he carries into the box the most impossible looking twigs, so that things will be well started when the laggard mate shows up. And when she does arrive! Such ecstasy! Showering a very cascade of notes he will throw himself skyward, only to arch downward toward the beloved one who, ignoring him, as soon as she arrives begins to throw out every stick which her mate has so laboriously dragged in.

Birds in the Garden was given a generous print-run by Grosset & Dunlap, a lifetime ago, and it's had a few reprints since then - it's not hard to find. And it's light-hearted, matter-of-fact sweetness will captivate you, like the decorative flitterings of an oriole on a picture-perfect Sunday morning. Even back in the dark days of 1939, there was still fit employment for such joy, and likely there always will be.

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