Ruth Bass: Elevated bird feeding keeps bears away

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RICHMOND — It's thwarting time. Marvelous word, thwarting. It has a certain road-block quality and sounds a little old-fashioned at the same time. The present thwart target is bears. The birds and I are in cahoots in this project (another marvelous word, cahoots). I want them at my feeders, they want to be at my feeders — and the bears must be thwarted for us to get our way.

The bears have for too long thwarted us. Once upon a time, feeding winter birds began in October, but we ceased and desisted when too many bears had cubs and too many humans did things that interrupted bear trails and habitats. They moved onto our mountain – a mere hill, most would say – and into our yard, gobbling bird seed, bending wrought iron poles, destroying feeders and sometimes carrying feeders off into the woods.

Despite the almost daily cajoling of the chickadees, we stopped putting out seed until early December when bears are supposed to take to their beds. (We quickly learned that a January thaw might rouse them and, wildly hungry, inspire them to pillage our feeders again.) But most of the time, it was safe to offer sunflower seeds to various birds until the Ides of March.

Now comes the second floor window box, which spills out million bells petunias and vinca from May till the frost temperature hits 25 degrees or less. The vinca vine still reaches almost down to the porch steps and sways gently in the breeze. Would a chickadee brave the waving vine and a shiny window for its lunch? Indeed.

Sunflower seeds scattered over the potting soil were attacked within hours, and the word went out. Among those who listened were as many as eight or ten chickadees, a white-breasted nuthatch, a couple of noisy blue jays and a few titmice. Except for the blue jays, none of them cared about someone standing at the window, inches from their heads.

One morning, some bird was scrambling on the underside of the wrought iron flower rack. When the small creature succeeded in getting to the top, he was quite a surprise — a male downy woodpecker that sat down and ate while I stared at the brilliant red spot on his head.

My Uncle Charlie, life-long bachelor and bird watcher, was a determined thwarter. Squirrels were the bane of his existence in terms of feeding birds, and he must have remembered the way people hung laundry from a window and reeled it out toward a handy tree or post. He rigged up a pulley system and sent his feeders out over the small ravine behind his house. The birds flocked in, and he could easily pull back the empties for refills.

Eventually, of course, squirrels figured it out and faced the risk. Like Flying Wallendas, they would cautiously work their way along the rope, often toppling off because it wasn't taut enough. Despite the fact that he was essentially a non-violent person, Uncle Charlie took offense with those who were on the verge of succeeding and, despite failing vision, would try to pick off an offender with his gun.

Imagine the chagrin of a land-trust official who arrived to discuss Charlie's scenic acres and was asked to take aim at a squirrel that had proved his prowess on the high wire and was eating sunflower seeds. The young man told the story at Charlie's memorial service, said he indeed followed orders and stepped up to the bathroom window with the gun and fired at the criminal outside. He missed, and his listeners assumed he had aimed badly, not wanting to offend his host and not anxious to kill anything.

Thwarting, apparently, can get a little obsessive. But we're not loaded for bear here — we're just hoping someone is singing them a lullaby.

Ruth Bass is a former Sunday editor of The Eagle. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.


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