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GOOD EARTH: Garden birds can be both beneficial and annoying

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CHRIS COULTER, Agriculture Columnist

It’s hard not to be an amateur ornithologist when your world is full of birds. It seems that this time of year there are birds everywhere on the farm. On one hand it is a sign that you’ve created a healthy habitat conducive to nesting, but on the other hand it can be annoying.

I have a feeling that if I had time to sit down in a lawn chair for a five minute break, which most days I don’t, a bird would build a nest in my hair. After every storm there are birds’ nests littering the ground, but it doesn’t seem to deter the birds, who just start right back again building their nests and hatching their brood.

It’s not that I don’t like birds. In fact, right out of college, my first job as a budding wildlife biologist was as a bird surveyor in Oregon and northern California. I remember going out that first morning for the 4 a.m. to sunup survey and recognizing exactly zero bird calls. My boss was less than excited about that, but I learned quickly, and in short amount of time could identify anything that made a chirp with just a note or two.

I also learned that birds start calling on a schedule, and that you can set your clock on which bird will start first, and which ones will follow. On cool nights when our windows are open, I am often stirred awake by the start-stop song of the robin, which is one of the first to start singing around here.

Our family’s bird lover is my nine year old daughter Ruth Anne, who is often seen with a worn copy of “Audubon’s Guide to North American Birds” and a pair of binoculars slung around her neck. We have quickly established a list of good birds and bad birds. If a bird eats our crops, they are bad, and if they eat insects or weed seeds, they are good. Native birds are good, non-native birds are bad. However, rarely is the world so black and white, and some birds have a shifting status.

We have a few sweet cherry trees on the farm which will be ripe this week. Nothing brings in the birds like red cherries. In fact, if we want to taste a cherry, we have to completely net our trees, which are over 15 feet tall. This is a yearly job that we can accomplish in a little time and is really the only thing you can do to stop birds from eating your fruit. All of the various home remedies to scare away birds work well—for about ten minutes. After which all of the pie pans, spinning CDs, plastic snakes, inflatable owls, and noisemakers only serve to annoy your neighbors and make your yard look like a flea market.

Short of a nuclear blast, you aren’t going to scare away the birds for long. Even after the fallout settled, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a robin alight and carry away that last irradiated cherry.

Sometimes birds exploit a gap in our netting and find themselves in need of a hand. Last year I’m not sure how many Baltimore orioles we freed, but they are beautiful little birds and I won’t begrudge them a cherry or two and send them on their way. Beautiful or not, they have a sharp beak which they applied freely to my fingers every time I untangled them. Orioles are ungrateful birds, to say the least.

One bird that we always make room for is the killdeer. This distinctive, migratory plover is an annual resident on the farm during the summer. They lay their four speckled brown eggs in a barely-there nest on disturbed patches of ground. With no-till agriculture dominating the landscape, there isn’t much bare ground around anymore, so our plowed vegetable plots are especially attractive. And, of course, they always nest right in the middle of a plot that I need to till and plant.

Killdeer are known by their call which sounds a lot like “KILL DEER, KILL DEER.” They also feign injury when you get near their nest, leading predators away with a “broken wing” act and the lure of an easy meal. When sufficiently far away from their well-camouflaged nest, they miraculously recover and fly away, leaving said predator with only sour grapes.

It is an “I-Spy” puzzle every year to locate their nests and mark them so that they aren’t inadvertently destroyed. I can’t sacrifice the whole plot, so last week I had to till around a momma who is setting a nest. Instead of the broken wing act she puffed up and tried to stand down a 60-horsepower tractor. I’ll give her points for bravery, and yes, I avoided the nest, although I might have dusted her a bit.

In a couple of weeks we’ll see four little brown fluff-balls jetting around the melon patch eating bugs and seeds. Then they’ll get their flight status and take off until next year, when they’ll return to our little farm as adults, ready to raise their own brood.

Some birds don’t get protected status, like the English sparrows that nest in Ruth Anne’s bluebird box. She doesn’t have the heart to tear out their nests, so I do that for her, in hopes that the bluebirds that frequent our orchard will choose to raise some little ones for us there. It can be a little disappointing for a nine-year-old when the birds don’t do what you want them to do.

It’s also disappointing for adults. My neighbor just informed me last night that the grackles had found my sweet corn patch and were feasting on the new shoots. So I’m off to deal with this new bird-induced problem. They don’t realize it yet, but they’ve just make the bad bird list as well.