As I went outside this morning, before firing up the computer to get to work, I could hear a familiar commotion out in my back yard. Birds. Lots of birds. Chirping, squawking, bloop blooping, cawing — it was quite the chaotic symphony.
According to the Houseguest, I’ve got a bird situation. And apparently, I’m the source of the problem. I guess, technically, she might be right.
It all started when my mom’s English friend, Mrs. Zeier, who lives down the street from me, gave me a bird feeder as a thank you for coming down and watering her plants while she and Mr. Zeier were out of town. Mrs. Zeier has a bird feeder, and I’d mentioned I’d been contemplating getting one and she thoughtfully bought me one.
The reason I wanted a bird feeder was because one day, about seven years ago, a small flock of bright green birds landed in my Texas Rangers squawking, chirping, and chattering their heads off. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and I had no idea what they were — small green birds that looked like a cross between a parrot and a budgie, they had large, curved beaks, reddish-orange faces, and blue rumps. After a few minutes, they took off and winged away.
Now, we have some interesting birds in Arizona, but these exuberant little green guys were positively exotic and definitely out of place. So, I posted about the encounter on Facebook, describing my avian visitors, and the Houseguest responded with “Peach-faced Lovebirds.”* (We weren’t roommates then, in fact, she’d just moved back to Arizona and was looking to buy a house in Tucson). Anyway, I did some research and found out that the Valley of the Sun is home to a feral population of lovebirds. Seems that there had been a jailbreak from someone’s aviary back in the 1980s. There are quite a number of lovebird species in Africa and there are several feral populations in the U.S. Our local peach-faces are originally from the southern part of Africa, and part of their range has a climate similar to Arizona, which the escapees found much to their liking. They prefer to roost in palm trees and the Phoenix metro area has no shortage of those. Over the decades, the lovebird population has been growing and slowly expanding throughout the Valley.
I saw them again when the Houseguest was visiting and she summoned me to the backyard. I didn’t see any for a quite a while after that, and then one day I noticed them flitting about the neighborhood and saw them disappearing into one of the tall palm trees in the neighbor’s yard. In the evening, I could hear their distinctive chatter.
*The Houseguest disputes this sequence of events, claiming she spotted them first while visiting and was merely reminding me of what they were called in the Facebook post — it is a possibility, but I can’t be bothered rewriting it.
Open for service
With my new feeder in hand, I decided to hang it from my Chinese elm tree so we can see it from either of the sliding doors that lead to the back patio. During the spring and summer, my elm has tons of leaves and branches that droop down, so I had to pick the right spot so the foliage didn’t obscure my view of it. Then I bought a 20 pound (9kg) bag of seed for $15 from the supermarket. I had done a bit of research and discovered that not all seed mixes are considered equal and that some companies add filler seed that a lot of birds don’t care for, but this one seemed to have a decent mix. After I filled the feeder, it sat there, unnoticed for a few days and I grew anxious, but then one morning, I noticed some sparrows flitting around it. Then quails, Inca doves, mourning doves, grackles, towhees, and finches began congregating. And then the little green dudes showed up.
So, the bird feeder has become quite popular, but sometimes it’s got all the decorum of a prison yard. I’m going through quite a bit of seed refilling the feeder (and I also toss handfuls around the yard for the ground-dwelling birds). The lovebirds, numbering between five to ten on any given day, have full control of the bird feeder, and stubbornly fend off the smaller birds. Sparrows and finches will dart in if there’s an opening to grab some seeds because the lovebirds are kind of bossy and not moving for anyone, except maybe the large gilded flicker that is too big to land, but will latch onto the bottom of the feeder and hang underneath it to grab seeds from the bottom trough.
The lovebirds are somewhat picky eaters and will go for their favorites seeds, dropping the undesirable ones. You can see a steady rain of less desirable seeds, which makes the other birds on the ground quite happy and things get quite lively.
Trouble in Paradise
The Houseguest is a birder and enjoys the avian visitors, though she’s more interested in seeing different kinds. On my busiest day, I’ve had 40 or more birds in the yard. However, she was quite excited the first time the lovebirds showed up.
“Oh my God,” she squealed. “They are sooooo cute! Look at their little fat bodies and blue butts! They’re adorable.”
A few months later, however, she was singing a different tune. One day around lunch, I heard some exasperated sounds emanating from her bedroom — I couldn’t think of anything that I’d done wrong, so I cautiously walked in through the open door to assess the situation. The Houseguest was peering out the sliding patio door and rapping on the glass.
“Hey! Hey! Get out of there, you little bastards!”
I peered out. Uh oh. The peach-faces weren’t up on the bird feeder because it was empty — I’d forgotten to buy birdseed. When I’d gone outside that morning, there were a couple of them sitting in the elm, looking at me and sounding a little annoyed that there was no grub waiting for them, and chirping and squawking at me to get a move on refilling the feeder. When I go out, I usually have my seed container that I shake as I whistle to let everyone know it’s breakfast time. Typically, they’re waiting with some of the other birds in nearby trees. I’d assumed that when there was no seed available, that the lovebirds would have moved on. But apparently, I was wrong as they had descended to join the quail, White-crowned sparrows, and other ground feeders to look for seeds amongst the rocks. At that moment, a group of peach-faces was perched on the metal tubs the Houseguest had bought to start a vegetable and flower garden. She’d only just planted her seeds the other day and was eagerly waiting for them to sprout. The lovebirds were looking at us unperturbed, pecking and scratching at the potting soil as the Houseguest knocked on the glass.
“They’re eating my seeds!” she exclaimed.
Indeed, they were. And yours truly was soon getting the blame for their avian hooliganism.
“This is all your fault, you know,” huffed the Houseguest.
Apparently, according to her, my overindulgence had turned the lovebirds into lazy, freeloading loafers.
“Maybe you shouldn’t feed them everyday. You’re making it too easy. They need to fly around and look for food.”
“I think that’s what they’re doing right now,” I said, watching them go to town on her seeds.
To solve the raiding problem, the Houseguest took some dead branches I had failed to remove after cutting them off some bushes, and she draped them over her tubs. The birds were not impressed and saw it as more of an obstacle course than a deterrent.
“Well, at least you’re making them work for it,” I remarked.
“We used to call that enrichment at the Chimp Farm,” I added. She gave me some side eye.
Scouring the internet, the Houseguest found and bought a portable screen that she set up to protect her plants. It seems to be doing the job,* though one day I caught three quail sitting on it, the mesh sagging down like a hammock.
*Update — two sparrows broke into the plant sanctuary by somehow squeezing under it. They freaked out when I went out and couldn’t escape, flapping frenziedly, until I was able to release them. The Houseguest is perturbed.
Anyway, I realized tonight I was out of birdseed, and I ran out at 10:30 p.m. and raced to the store to buy some before it closed. I picked up two large bags of seeds and filled up the feeder and scattered some on the ground. I’ve realized I’m actually spending a decent amount feeding birds. But oh well, gotta keep the little green bastards happy. Right?