My yard has been certified as a Wildlife Habitat.
Since I first moved into my Las Cruces home in 2012, I have been birdwatching in the backyard. Although I would love to be a real birdwatcher and travel the world, or even closer, to observe our feathered companions, that is pretty hard to do when using a cane, as I must do. Birdwatching requires looking up with full attention. But looking up is hazardous for a klutz like me with natural tendencies to trip and fall. The only solution is to have a stationary bird center where I can observe from the stable environment of my dining room table.
What does it take to have one’s yard become a certified Wildlife Habitat? Naturally, food is one of the first requirements. I installed bird feeders right away. I ordered the usual supplies: bird seed; suet blocks; quail blocks; bark butter bits; worms. When the sales person at Wild Birds Unlimited asked whether I wanted live worms or dried worms, I made a quick decision, “Dead ones, please.” Why? Because if I ordered live ones, I would have to feed them celery every ten days and store them in the fridge. That became my line in the sand, and I opted out.
Another necessity is water. In addition to a solar-powered fountain that sits on the ground, I also have two other pans where they can drink. However, birds don’t follow my rules. Some bathe in the water rather than drink there. Others do both.
One must also provide a place where birds can shelter their young. I ordered two different kinds of bird houses and picked the perfect spot to place them. However, my backyard adviser, Liza Chase, warned me that if I used that chosen location there was too much sun and the hatchlings would cook in our desert sun. OOPS! The bird houses now sit in the shade of a tree.
My favorite visitors to the yard are the Gambel’s Quail. When I see their bobbing top-knots as they scurry around the yard, I automatically smile. They are my daily meditation as I get caught up in watching their dramas: taking dust baths in the holes dug for them by the bunnies; keeping track of their errant young – and there is always one straggler; one standing sentry at the top of the fence overlooking the brood and ready to sound an alarm if danger approaches. And they are the best parents. They tend to their young for a long time, guiding them even as late as their teenage years, yet nothing is as precious as seeing parents escorting a string of baby feather balls.
Roadrunners make me laugh. The yard mostly clears when they are around, although surprisingly, I’ve observed a bunny chasing one off. I can only surmise that baby bunnies must have been hiding nearby. While they are in the yard, they are usually on the hunt for lizards. When I first started learning about birds, I told Kristi Lane, the owner of my local Wild Birds Unlimited store, I wanted to feed them, too. That inclination was squashed when she said, “They’re carnivores, you know.” And they have a bad reputation for eating quail eggs.
Birdwatching has its dark side, too. Sometimes a Cooper’s Hawk will chase a dove into one of my large dining room windows. The crash into the window creates a sickening “thud” that reverberates through the house. Then after the stunned bird falls to the ground, the hawk pounces; feathers fly, and the hawk devours its prey. That doesn’t sit well while I’m having my lunch.
You can learn a lot by watching the backyard action. Pecking order has real meaning. At the bottom of the pecking order are the mourning doves but the white winged doves have priority over them. And the quail have seniority over the doves.
Knowing how much delight I receive from bird watching, Liza came up with a great idea. she thought I would enjoy hearing them, too. She set up a baby monitoring system so that I can hear them when I am in my bedroom and in the dining room. After a short while, I have become quite adept at distinguishing between bird sounds. The only creepy part is at night when I hear unfamiliar sounds, and it’s too dark out there to identify the culprit.
Other regular visitors to my yard are grackles, who elicit the response, “The sky is falling,” because they commonly look skyward; finches of many varieties; curved bill thrashers; hummingbirds; pyrrhuloxia (a kind of cardinal); sparrows; and mockingbirds.
This plaque was a gift from my dear friends, Mariah Chase and Roxana Gillett. Roxana participated in the gift despite my having previously gifted her with twelve pink flamingos that did not thrill her. The flamingos have since migrated to my yard where they have multiplied over the years. The bunny (Cottontails) population in New Mexico has greatly diminished due to some pandemic that has been causing their deaths. Now instead of having three to five every day, I only have one.
During this pandemic, I have been enjoying ZOOM meetings of the Audubon Society. Recently, one presenter said, “Birdwatching keeps you sane.” I must agree with her. Each morning as I record how many infections and deaths have occurred in Doña Ana County in the last 24 hours, I then turn my head to watch the birds and surrender my worries.
Norine Dresser is a folklorist who has always loved birds. When living in Los Angeles, the Scrub Jays depended on her for daily doses of peanuts that they took from her hands. When they saw her car pull into the garage, they sat on the front steps hand railing and squawked at her to let her know they were hungry.
Visit my Gallery of Folklore & Popular Culture: flpcgallery.org