Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 26
June 29-July 5, 2000
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In the Catbird Seat

Idlers and cowards are here at home now.
—Wind song of the Kiowa Tribe

That fits me fine. I’m home — and probably a coward.

Join me on the patio on the east side of the Burton home overlooking Stoney Creek (though trees I covet pretty much block the view) at Riviera Beach in North County.

I’m seated on a glider next to a small U-shaped garden, doing what adventurers would consider dull. But my early mornings here are oft the most pleasurable hours of my day.

Before, during and after going through the morning papers and breakfasting on cereal, I’m feeding wildlife — birds, squirrels and rabbits. I’m too much of a coward to head for Yellowstone to feed the bears or to Florida to feed toothy fish — though that’s what the more adventuresome set does these days.

Not Me

The Take-A-Shark-To-Lunch concept in Florida has some fisheries authorities concerned because of attacks on humans. It’s claimed the practice in SCUBA tourist areas is beginning to make fish associate humans with food. When one doesn’t offer food, the fish literally bite the hand they have come to expect to feed them.

This has prompted worries about aggressive barracudas and sharks in proximity to swimmers, surf fishermen and others in salty waters. Encounters are on the increase, so are injuries, and there’s a drive underway to convince Gov. Jeb Bush to halt the practice.

I’ll feed my rockfish and blues in chum lines, thank you; no hand-to-mouth service from me. The same with black bears (I note one was killed by an auto 20 miles from my home a couple weeks ago). What about the woman who tried feeding a tiger and lost her arm?

Wildlife Less Exotic

As I sit here on the patio where wildlife is less exotic though not less interesting, I feel a tap on my ankle. It’s Whitey, a squirrel of pretty much that color though not an albino — nor as glistening white as my cat Frieda.

The tap is a reminder that Whitey has not received his morning peanuts. He — or is it a she? — likes breakfast, also. So I dig into my pocket, pull out a peanut and hold it about six inches off the cement.

The bushytail edges closer, chin up, and grabs the peanut, turns his back, rolls the nut rapidly between his front paws, chews off one end in rapid bites, then puts the whole thing in his mouth and scampers 20 feet away to have breakfast. He’ll soon be back.

It took several weeks to overcome Whitey’s reluctance to approach me. He’s a loner, doesn’t mingle with the couple dozen other squirrels that frequent the lawn. At first, I tossed him peanuts from afar, then gradually closer, until he got his nut and scampered off to eat it in the trees.

Other squirrels were less timid, so Whitey was the challenge, and he now gets a good ration of peanuts. Like the others, he won’t take corn or sunflower seeds I drop near me. He wants peanuts.
When I go inside and look out the window, I’ll see him and the others chomping on the kernels and seeds, but for hand-to-mouth service they want only peanuts at $1.35 a pound.

By then, doves will also be breakfasting.

The crumbled low-salt and fat-free pretzels, too stale for my consumption mixed in the scatterings are the last to go among squirrels and doves. But watch and you’ll see a blackbird swoop down, grab a big pretzel chunk, then head for the birdbath.

There he will swish the pretzel in water to soften it, devour it and come back for seconds. I guess the big tub of pretzels is older and harder than I figured. The sharp teeth of squirrels pulverize them — when all the other scatterings gone.

Listen to the Mockingbird

From the juniper tree aside the porch, a mockingbird gives short snappy calls as if to irritate Frieda on the other side of the screen. It drives her buggy, and this mockingbird — one of at least three hereabouts — is my latest challenge.

I lay a spread of small pieces of strawberries, blueberries or orange slices in a feeder close to the juniper. But thus far there is no evidence it is even noticed by the particular bird who taunts Frieda.

The mallards will soon arrive. They’ll fly over the fence, land a dozen feet from me and quack impatiently. The ugliest of the bunch, white with jet black uneven markings and the dullest bill I’ve ever seen on a fowl, will waddle right to my perch on the glider and make his pitch for breakfast.

The other ducks always try to drive the hybrid away, but he is the first to get his ration of corn I’ve set aside for fowl from the creek. He realizes the others don’t want to come within 10 feet of me, so he eats underfoot in peace — and sometimes makes a short flight to the birdbath to wash down the kernels.

But best of all are the catbirds, at least five in number now. They drive Frieda, watching from the porch, nearly wild. One or two are always waiting when I step outside in the morning. They want their grape jelly. And do they want it.

Last year a tablespoon a day was enough; this year it’s three. The jelly feeder is only three feet from me, but the catbirds don’t mind. If the tablespoon of jelly is gone, one will perch on the back rest of the glider and meow amazingly like Frieda. She doesn’t appreciate it.

The catbirds have become so tame, they now turn their back to me, rumps high in the air, and I hear their beaks tap as they dig them into the jelly before darting off to wash it off their bills or wipe it off on garden soil a few feet from me. My catbirds are those with grape-shaded beaks, and I’ve taken a picture of one for you.

So things are pretty dull around here if you’re after big game. But I’ll take my menagerie any day — and that’s what I do every morning. Thanks for stopping by.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly