Anne Horrigan Geary: Feeding the flock

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DALTON — We try to eat healthy foods, so fruits and vegetables appear regularly on our weekly shopping list. Lately, oranges and grapes top the fruit section of the list; but we do not consume them. We set them out daily at feeding stations in the yard to nourish our growing avian family.

We set out hummingbird feeders by the beginning of May, and are soon rewarded by the sight of the buzzing little birds flying overhead and stopping to sip at the feeders. One day, a larger bird landed and crouched over to drink the nectar. It was a male Baltimore oriole. A quick check with a bird reference book stated that orioles, as opportunistic feeders, have learned how to take advantage of supplies of sugar water intended for hummingbirds.

We know the orioles like oranges because we used to nail orange halves to our scrub oaks in Harwich. Off to the market we went to buy a pricey naval orange to tempt the birds away from the hummers' food. We were rewarded by the sight of a male oriole landing on the orange, suspended from a plant hook, in the crabapple tree. One bird became two, two birds became three, and now we are buying oranges by the bag for our greedy visitors.

At the same time, we were preparing a butterfly feeder for the parade of swallowtails that arrive later in May. We put a couple of halved grapes in the feeder, which we hung at the end of the pergola under the grapevines. Looking out the dining room window the next day, I was surprised to see an oriole landing on the feeder and munching a grape. Later, there was a male cardinal doing the same, and then a female cardinal. Finally, a catbird sat down to graze.

We usually have some small seed feeders hanging in the pussy willow; but the report of bears in the neighborhood had caused us to take them down. My husband did scatter some sunflower seeds on the ground for the cardinals; but a flock (yes, flock) of bluejays came and vacuumed them all up. We decided to increase our grape purchases to keep the birds coming to the former butterfly feeder.

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Because the feeder is close to a window, I've been able to watch the parade of grape grabbers and take some pretty good photos through the glass. Some birds just take the fruit and fly away, others opt to sit and nibble. One male cardinal dropped his grape on the deck and flew down to eat it there. A female cardinal sat on the feeder, swinging back and forth, as she pecked daintily at her food while appearing to look at me looking at her.

This week I have seen a couple of butterflies. They were happy to feed on the rhododendron blossoms and let the birds continue eating grapes. I've been growing many species of butterfly and hummingbird-friendly plants, so there is a constant supply of nectar; but I bought the feeder because I had seen them at several butterfly farms we had visited in the Caribbean.

Maybe our New England-based butterflies are happier flitting from flower to flower than sitting on a feeder. I plan to keep the feeder available through the summer just to see how many different species use it. We feel very privileged to be able to provide food, water, and shelter to so many types of wildlife.

Sitting under the pergola, shaded by the grapevines, we are able to get up close and personal with many birds and butterflies. We are constantly amazed by their antics, such as the buzzing loops a male hummingbird was recently performing in the airspace under a feeder where a female was drinking. A mating ritual perhaps? It's certainly worth increasing the food budget a little to see such wonderful sights.

Anne Horrigan Geary is a regular Eagle contributor.


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