Burton on the Bay:

All the Burtons Like the Birds...

(especially Frieda)

Frieda Lawrence Burton, the family cat of about a dozen years of age, is livelier than she has been for years. For her, this is a summer to remember.

I take credit for her newfound vim and vigor, though it came about inadvertently ---and I must admit selfishly. I decided to feed birds throughout the summer.

The east lawn of the Burton spread above the shoreline of Stoney Creek in North Country is busier in summertime than it has been for years. What a variety of feathered friends: cardinals, bluejays, finches, catbirds, assorted sparrows, doves, robins, a couple of wrens, at least one mockingbird, a pair of flickers who seem to take an interest in seeds and, of course, blackbirds and cowbirds.

There are more squirrels than ever, and they treat the bird seeds as theirs, oftentimes driving birds away -- though bluejays sometimes challenge them and not infrequently win, especially when a few peanuts are involved.

Among the bird seeds scattered on the lawn by birds at one of the feeders, I have even seen a few rabbits digging. I swear the cottontails appeared to be eating seeds, which I hadn't noticed before. My binoculars couldn't prove they were, but they sure looked like it.

Alas, no bluebirds, hummingbirds, and so far I haven't seen either of the Baltimore orioles that make rare appearances some summers. I fear the covey of quail that lived on the steep treed slope to the creek have either moved elsewhere or have been claimed by predators.

Things are hopping with bird life, which makes for pleasant times for me whenever I have the opportunity to do some backyard bird watching.

For many years, I gave up summertime feeding what with all the weed seeds available among the assorted trees on the lawn as well as in a flower garden that has pretty much gone to the dogs because a leg injury a few months ago has kept me from horticultural chores.


Keeping Frieda Young

As with humans, active minds, I presume, keep cats vigorous and alert, which I also presume means healthier felines. And Frieda, despite her chronic megacolon problem and more recently a thyroid condition (both being treated successfully by medication and diet) appears to be a kitten again.

She birdwatches on the screened-in porch from before sunrise to sunset, rain or shine. Much of the time, she assumes a squat-low crouched position next to the screen overlooking the lawn to study the panorama or feathered and furred activity. Her tail thumps on the hard green carpet.

Frieda, an all-white cat of 15 pounds that could pass for a purebred English tabby, stares intently over the lawn. Only the sound of the popping of a can of cat food will bring her to the kitchen, when previously she scanned the lawn occasionally and spent most of her time curled up on the sofa or the bed in the master bedroom.

Something else, too. Frieda now displays a desire to head out onto the lawn, which she has never done before. I can count on one hand the number of times, she previously headed for the porch door to go outside. I always figured she appreciated that she had it made in the shade - the shade of the house and porch - considering her pre-Burton days.

She was claimed as a kitten of perhaps six months at the most, so wild she had to be captured by a crab net when I first spotted her on the lawn of Capt. Buddy Harrison's Chesapeake House at Tilghman Island. She was dirty and scraggly, had an eye injury and was as wild as any feral cat. But by the time she arrived here, had a bath and tasted cat food for the first time, she was completely domesticated.

She knew a good thing when she got it. With food, water, shelter, Blue Cross, attention, cat toys and a couple of litter boxes inside, why venture outside? She had tried that, living outdoors from birth until she caught my eye.

But now when I open the porch door, she's right there. She has figured out that door is the key to her closer proximity to all that bird and animal life. And she wants out, but so far I've succeeded in blocking the way.


Let's Do Lunch

The change in the backyard pattern that has brought about the change in Frieda can be attributed to an experiment I decided to try in early June. Perhaps you have seen those bird feeders in the shape of a cat holding a box above which is painted "let's do lunch."

I bought one late last winter for my Aunt MiMi in Vermont, and several weeks later she phoned to inform me that catbirds visited it regularly to feast on the tablespoon of grape jelly she placed in the box each day.

I like catbirds. I like to hear their cat-like calls; I like it when they perch close to my wooden glider outside as I sit to enjoy breakfast. They are less fearful of me than other birds; they're curious and interesting.

So I got another of the cat-like feeders, but having no grape jelly tried strawberry preserves. No catbirds were interested. I got grape jam, but still no catbirds at the feeder. Do Maryland catbirds have different tastebuds?

I figured, maybe sprinkling bird seed - primarily small black sunflower seeds - liberally around the lawn as well as filling the feeders used in cooler weather would get more birds working the lawn, among them catbirds who would find the jelly. For good measure, I sprinkled some currants in the special feeder, too.

Since then, the lawn is filled with bird and animal life, which thankfully does not include the hawk that hangs around when the leaves fall from the trees. The huge nearby catalpa and its foliage create a protective canopy.

The daily feeding ritual has prompted me to replenish the birdbath with fresh cool water daily, which probably also has much to do with all the activity. The catbirds come to the "cat" feeder, pluck a currant, then dig their beaks into the grape jelly. I can almost distinguish smiles on their faces. Twice I've seen a cock cardinal in that feeder, but can't decide whether it was attracted by the currants or the jelly. Or both.

One pair of cardinals took up residence in a silver maple, turning out a some chicks in early June. One evening, one of the chicks still too young to fly right somehow ended up on a crossbar of the wooden fence below. It froze there.

The parents circled, screeched and did everything to try and get it to jump off and fly. It wouldn't move. I didn't know what to do, whether to try and help or not; nor did my ornithology-inclined sister Ruth, visiting from Rhode Island. So we watched.

The parents didn't give up until dark, and we didn't intervene. The young cardinal - almost as big as the adults but not bright in color yet -- remained on the rail. It was there a few hours later when I checked by flashlight.

In the morning it was gone. Ruth told me chances are 50-50 it flew on its own. I hope so, but I can assure you Frieda played no role in the outcome -- whichever way it went.

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VolumeVI Number 31
August 6-12, 1998
New Bay Times

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