Coronavirus 10: close encounters of the bird kind

Here in Windsor, and soon across most of Ontario, we find ourselves in the grip of a 4-week lockdown. I find it useful to think back to the initial constraints imposed as the pandemic spread in early 2020 and governments responded. Reeling from the enormity of that first lockdown in mid-March, including the abrupt move to all of my end-of-semester teaching online, I found then that I could not spend all day in the house and in front of the computer. This was for my own sanity but also because the daycare was closed and so our toddler was suddenly to be at home all day every day. My spouse, then pregnant with our second child, was working to get her online store going, and it quickly became apparent that we could not all just be at home all day on top of one another. Ojibway Park is close by and promised a more interesting and less windy walk than the Windsor riverfront in March, so I packed up the toddler and his snow boots and we went to check out what was possible for an hour or two. Even with our current predicament, I am struggling to remember the particular kind of emotional and physical drain the first round of severe lockdown produced. There were then so many unknowns about coronavirus and covid, and there was a palpable dread in the air. There is that now too, but it’s flavored by grim “fuck it, we’re having holiday visitors” and “let’s just let Amazon pack people into a warehouse while covid tears through nursing homes” attitudes now spiking the emotional punch. Vaccines are now rolling out on a limited scale as well so there is perhaps some light at the end of this tunnel. But in March, even going to the park for a walk suddenly carried a covid risk assessment as I read news stories about the difficulties of contact tracing and the extraordinary distance that joggers and cyclists can spray vaporized droplets in the open air. But once at Ojibway, walking on the trails, some paved and some not, the snow still lingering under the trees and the crisp air of emerging springtime providing some respite from quarantine, I felt an immediate sense of relief and disconnect from the pandemic. I don’t mean this in some naive, back-to-nature, 19th-century Romantic way. One hundred or so acres of hemmed-in forest and prairie is not a wilderness retreat, and we were not there to find some transcendental truth about ourselves, our humanity, and our mystical connection with Nature. We needed to walk, run, and breathe outside the enclosed space of our home and yard. Less crowded than the riverfront, and not the dull, open, hyper-managed greenspaces of other city parks (uninteresting for a toddler, and the closed playgrounds guarded by police tape would be too inviting for him anyway), Ojibway offered exactly what we wanted in the moment. We started going two or three times a week, sometimes several days in a row.

We had been to Ojibway once or twice before the pandemic, but had not spent much time there or really explored the many short trails through the park’s wooded expanse, tucked between industrial sites along the Detroit River, a former horse track, and residential development. Yet as weeks of covid-related restrictions and closures stretched into months, Ojibway became our preferred go-to outdoor site. I don’t really mean to make this post about the park itself, though it does have a fascinating history. Mixed prairie and forest once covered much of the region on this side of the Detroit River. The current Ojibway Park is one part of the larger Ojibway Prairie Remnants Area of Natural and Scientific Interest, managed by both the City of Windsor and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Surrounding these conservation areas and parks are railyards and other industrial sites, traces of the Windsor Raceway that closed in 2012 and now used in part as a school bus terminal, a golf course, suburban tract housing, and a heavily-trafficked expressway. How a relatively small enclave of prairie ecosystem remained mostly intact over the last 200-plus years of clearance, white settlement, and industrialization is, perhaps, a minor miracle, but it is also the result of planning failures prior to World War II. Once slated for development as a company town by US Steel, the site passed through multiple industrial owners who never quite got around to clearing it for other uses, and by the late 1950s, it became city parkland. While much loved and used by local residents, the delicate and rare ecosystems found in the Ojibway complex remain threatened by pollution, invasive species, and urban development at its margins. There is talk, with support from local and federal politicians, of creating a national urban park centered on the nearby Ojibway Shores and possibly including the parklands, and the city is currently planning the construction of a wildlife crossing across a busy local road next to the park. Yet there was also a move not long ago to build a large shopping center adjacent to Ojibway, though this has been shelved for the time being, and, an extension of Highway 401 leading to a new cross-border bridge for thousands of trucks a day runs very close by.

But as I said, this post is not about the park or its history. Instead, I want to talk birds. Yeah. Birds. Ojibway, and this part of Ontario more generally, is home to a large diversity of bird species, including native species that are here year-round and migratory ones that use the region as a stopping point en route over the Great Lakes. I am by no means a bird expert, and I have not yet developed the habits (trekking into the woods before sunrise) or acquired the uniform (multi-pocketed tactical vest) of a diehard birdwatcher. I also haven’t sat in on the courses some of my colleagues from the Integrative Biology department teach on ornithology and ecosystem dynamics, though I might at some point. I did, however, download a bird identification app on my phone, and this fall I even built a hanging platform bird feeder for my front yard with some old scraps of wood and 1/4″ wire mesh I had lying around. That I had these things lying around and thought “I’ll make a bird feeder” suggests that I have finally become some kind of stereotypical suburban dad. This was likely inevitable, but all things being equal, larping as a suburban dad is not the worst thing that could have happened to me during this pandemic. I mean, look at the title of this post. I make no apologies for this but I will return to this feeder situation below.

Arriving at Ojibway Park from Matchette Road, you turn into a large parking lot next to the Nature Centre, though this has been closed since March. The main paved trails in the park all begin here, passing by the Nature Centre and a storage shed next to which are several bird feeders and an area of trees and shrubs harboring a small army of sparrows. Black Oak Heritage Park is nearby and the Ojibway Prairie, which is under provincial care, is across the road, but we have focused our time in the park, as the trails are better for kids and their bikes and strollers. It was at the park bird feeders that we first encountered the wide diversity of birds in the park, and I have noted the changing composition of species over the last nine months. Cowbirds and towhees scratching among the leaves in March and April gave way to orioles in late spring pecking at the orange slices someone would nail to the tree trunks. Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches linger year-round but seemed to take over in late fall and early winter, and woodpeckers, cardinals, and blue jays stand out more in the fall as the leaves drop and flashes of color dart among the trees. On one of our first trips in the early spring, I noticed that the chickadees in particular were very friendly, and would approach and even land on your hand to take seeds. I saw others doing this at first, carrying little baggies of bird seed with them and holding their hands out by the feeders, waiting patiently for a chickadee to alight, pick up a seed or nut, and return to a perch in a tree to eat it. I already had a beaten up hopper feeder that I left hanging in a large spruce tree in our front yard, and though I often forgot to fill it for a week at a time, I did have a large bag of wild bird seed mix in the garage. So in early April, we started bringing seed on our visits to Ojibway. Our first bird landing produced intense excitement from our toddler and I was transfixed as a chickadee swooped from a nearby tree branch to my gloved hand to retrieve sunflower seeds several times.

As we discovered over the next few weeks, chickadees are quite friendly and even brave little birds, and they, nuthatches, and titmice will gladly land on your hand to retrieve seeds and nuts. We frequented three main feeding spots along the park’s trails: the bird feeders near the entrance, at the end of the short boardwalk near the pond, and at a small bridge just off the paved Prairie Glade trail. Feeding the birds, waiting patiently with arm outstretched for them to alight on our hand, snatch a seed, and fly away, became such a key part of our trips that my son started calling the park simply “the birds and bats.” We have never yet seen a bat, but there is a bat house at the shed near the bird feeders so this is the name that has stuck. For him, it is a thrill every time a bird lands on his hand, but it is also exceedingly difficult to achieve this. He cannot be still long enough (he did just turn three, so he is very kinetic), and so the birds simply do not trust him as a perch. This is sometimes frustrating and so we will help him by holding his hand to keep it steady. Even then he sometimes cannot muster the patience to wait and be still and quiet long enough to coax a bird to land on his hand. And the park is, at times, quite full. That was the case today, in fact, as school is out, there is not much to do in winter amid a lockdown, and so there were a lot of families and kids making a lot of noise and, honestly, standing too close together even for the open air. So we had to leave with a bird count of zero.

As for myself, I began to note and appreciate different birds’ feeding habits upon landing. Chickadees will often come first, but are fast, they don’t like to linger. Grabbing a seed, they quickly find a higher perch in a tree to crack it open and eat it before returning a few more times. Some have even followed us along the trails looking for more seeds. Nuthatches, however, will sit and pick through and toss aside the seed in your hand until they find what they want. They also seem more aggressive than the other birds, and will chase one another off if too many congregate at once. They’re not so good at taking turns as the chickadees. Titmice are a little more shy, and if there is plenty of other food available, such as the piles of seeds left on the bridge rail or in the platform feeders, they will not even look twice at you. But they will land and even appear at times to make eye contact before carefully picking a seed or a peanut and then flying off a distance. They will not return as often as chickadees and nuthatches. A few weeks ago I also had a small downy woodpecker eye me for a good while from a nearby tree before finally deciding to land on my hand and take a peanut. Woodpeckers seem much more hesitant to approach people than the other small birds and so I felt, perhaps irrationally, a very strong gratitude for and attachment to this woodpecker, which took the peanut and flew up into a tree and jammed it into a crevice in the bark to eat later, something called caching. I have tried in vain to get a cardinal to land on my hand as it sat on a branch 20 feet away and stared at me like I was crazy, but they will eat seed you lay out if you stand back a bit. Blue jays don’t even want you to stand too close to them, and sparrows and juncos, which often arrive in flocks of a dozen or more birds, are social in a way that precludes any real interaction with you. Other smaller bird species we’ve encountered at the park – grackles, mourning doves, towhees, wrens, catbirds, red-bellied woodpeckers, and orioles – are simply not interested in you feeding them directly, and the flock of wild turkeys that sometimes cross over from the prairie to the woods are only to be observed from a distance as well. Other wildlife also finds a refuge here as well, and we have seen deer, snakes, racoons, and lots of turtles and frogs on our many walks.

As we took to feeding the birds at the park from our hands, I also took greater care to stock the bird feeder at home. It hangs from the large blue spruce in our front yard, and with regular filling every few days, the feeder has become a hub of activity for several bird species. Indeed, some mornings when the feeder is still full, we will spot as many as seven or eight kinds of birds there. The cardinals often show up first, followed by a group of finches, a pair of chickadees, a pair of nuthatches, and a single blue jay. The jay announces its presence from a large tree across the street before lighting in the top branches of the spruce and then making its way down the tree, screeching a few times and driving the smaller birds away before taking a few jabs at the seeds and then flying back across the street to its other tree. The other smaller birds then return. Juncos and sparrows will often come after the other birds and clean out the feeder, making a huge mess in the yard, which then attracts doves and, on some evenings, a skunk with a burrow somewhere in our street’s landscaped median. There are also greedy thieving squirrels. I have awoken several mornings during this pandemic and peeked out the living room window to see a squirrel hanging upside down on my feeder, gorging itself on nuts and seeds and making an awful mess in the process. This usually sends me out the front door in sweatpants and flip flops screaming and, on occasion, waving a broom, all to put some fear into the squirrels. Not a good look for me, perhaps, but then again I don’t care, and success is always short-lived. This did inspire me to construct the platform feeder, and I have stocked it with nuts and sunflower seeds and even some dried corn. In this way I have achieved an uneasy truce with the squirrels. We have an understanding that they can park their fat little asses in the platform feeder if they stay off the hopper meant for the birds. So far, so good.

Now, given the generally political, academic, and analytical focus of many of my previous posts, this one must make me seem right mad. My spouse certainly thinks I have taken it too far when I leap from the dining room table or a living room chair and shout “there’s a new bird!” and grab my binoculars to peer at it through the window. She fears the sudden arrival of a tactical birding vest and a 5 a.m. wakeup call. When a rodent took up residence under our back porch this summer, the city’s rat extermination program inspector advised me to take the bird feeder down as it is too great an enticement for rats, with which Windsor has a bit of a problem. Instead, I undertook a vigorous harassment campaign against the porch rat and declared victory finally by sealing up all porch entrances with ledger stone. The birds were free to enjoy my largesse once more. Upon the suggestion of a close friend and colleague in the US, I also took up listening to BirdNote, a daily 2-minute podcast about birds. This helped because I realized I was not alone in my newfound bird obsession as he likewise had come to find birds a source of distraction and joy during the pandemic.

I have thought long and often about why, at least for me, this should be the case. Why birds? It helps that the bird feeders in the yard have given me something to tend to throughout the pandemic, and provided a flash of life and color to an otherwise pretty standard urban/suburban yard. But I had a bird feeder before, so this is not necessarily new. Surely the fact that feeding the birds is something my young son and I shared together on walks through the woods is a major factor. But he is not always as interested in this as I am, and we do many things together, even if few of them will top the thrill of having a small wild bird land on your hand. I know the bird feeding trips hit a chord with him though, as he wanted to name his sister, who was born at home in July, “Chickadee Baseball” for weeks, and he still sometimes calls her Chickadee.

I think the context of this pandemic really matters most. Outside of going to the store or an online meeting (thankfully few and far between given my sabbatical, as I disdain meeting in this way, even if it is necessary for now), I have had to whittle my direct interactions with others to a handful of people: my household, a very small circle of friends, and a couple of contractors who helped fix our bathroom over the summer. Beyond that, not much sustained interpersonal contact with others. Grabbing lunch and talking politics with departmental colleagues is at this point a distant memory. I have not seen my parents since last Christmas, and they have yet to meet our daughter, who was born in July. We had to cancel a planned trip to Germany to visit in-laws, and they seem farther away than ever. Given all this, the fact that I could commune, even briefly, with a chickadee or a nuthatch or a woodpecker as it fed from my hand gave me some satisfaction. The birds are not my friends, of course, I don’t mean anything so childish or sentimental as that. There remains an impenetrable species barrier between us. We have no way of really understanding one another beyond my amateur reading of their body language and their trust in my hand as a temporary feeding perch. But there have been moments when we were standing quietly at the small bridge in Ojibway, just me and my toddler and two dozen birds, and the only sounds were the rustling of leaves and the beating of wings and the laughing calls of nuthatches, when I felt really calm and the pandemic slipped away out of my consciousness for just a while. I am fidgety, and impatient, and quick to anger, and the pandemic has exacerbated all this. Forging the patience and stillness to get the birds to trust that they can land on my outstretched hand without fear, this is very hard for me. But it is something I have practiced with the birds over the last nine months, and will continue to do for the foreseeable future.