Clellie Lynch: Battle for the blueberries

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It's midsummer and the natural world is awash in golden sunlight, steamy heat and glowing greenery. Fields and roadsides are alive with wildflowers, lawns are still quite green and the gardens, both the flower and the vegetable, are coming into their own. Our bird boxes are empty. The young'uns are out of the nest and almost on their own, some seen following a parent from branch to branch raspily squawking, "Feeedme, feeedme."

On my morning walk, tree and barn swallows mingle as they gather on the wires, the young still identifiable by plumage. The Canada geese goslings are now absolute doppelgangers for the parents. Now and then woodland birds call pewees, phoebes, yellowthroats, nuthatches, chickadees, robins, veeries. Larger birds too make their presence known: crows and ravens, broadwings and red-shouldered hawks. The marshy area is usually graced by a great blue heron (that wandering adolescent) and a kingfisher. Always wonderful to be out and about especially during these pandemic times made so much worse by our covidius commander-in-chief.

Along the road, rabbits, big and small, are plentiful, hopping, darting and zigzagging into the tangled underbrush as soon as they notice me. Deer wander about there are at least three families, two, each with a single fawn and the third, with twins. The moms are quite attentive to the fawns and have not, of late, been feasting on our plants. That first cervine foray left many lilies, phlox and turtleheads utterly bud-less. The phlox is blooming now, but the chewed up plants are only half the height of the unsullied ones.

The blueberries are ripening, so many this year that a few of the branches are weighed down nearly touching the ground. How beautiful they are at this stage when the clumps of berries vary so in color, from greenish, to greenish pink, to pale blue, to dark blue and indigo-violet. But Danny and I are not the only ones who want these berries. The catbirds are back!

Now when we put the six bushes in many years ago, we would cover them with netting which would have to be removed for picking. In the battle of wits that followed, Dan devised many different strategies for netting these bushes and warding off hungry, and perhaps greedy, birds. Eventually we put up a wooden framework with a door to completely enclose the bushes. But every year winter takes its toll on the netting. By springtime the netting is often in shreds and has to be replaced.

So off Danny goes to Agway for more netting and we spend a bit of time taking off unusable portions and replacing with new netting. This process not only requires stapling and re-stapling, but also sewing together any places where there are gaps large enough for a bird to insinuate its way in. Overlay and stitch, overlay and stitch to ensure there is no available entry point!

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But the battle has begun! Every day for the last week as more and more berries turn blue, a catbird slips in, then another, and another. One morning four catbirds flew about occasionally eating a berry, but more often than not anxiously looking for an exit. Too bad they cannot read for I would put up a flashing exit sign.

Down I go to push and prod the netting to see if there are any areas even with the tiniest of holes. I find a whole section where the old fraying string has been removed, probably by birds looking for nesting material. Back I go to the house and return with green string and a scissors. Odd being a seamstress without a machine!

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I see the top needs repairing too. Danny gathers up a small step ladder and his staple gun to nail down a top portion that was very loose. Now I figure we're done we've repaired the holes and cut off access.

Lo and behold! the next morning, three catbirds are nonchalantly flitting in among the bushes ladened with enough blueberries for them to eat for months to come. I open the door and circle the patch. One finds the door; another gets very close and just sits there on a swaying branch giving me the beady eyeball. The third flies to the farthest point from the door. I walk around again and finally have to go inside and literally chase it from side to side until it notices the open door and out he flits.

"Me-eew," one bird calls from a nearby ash tree. "Mee-ew," one hidden in the forsythia answers. Are they saying, "Let's meet back here in an hour?" for an hour later the three catbirds are once again having the time of their life in my blueberry patch. Sigh!

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I quite like catbirds, well, I did. Lovely gray with a black cap and an amazing repertoire of song, stealing riffs, trills, ripples and tweets from many other birds. Some claim the catbird, Dumetella carolinensis, knows maybe 500, maybe 800, different songs! Unlike the thrasher and mockingbird, the catbird rarely repeats a sequence. On and on it sings.

One early observer claimed there was a "lawless freedom to the song." Another thought that the bird with such a complicated combination of notes "he probably does not know himself exactly what he is talking about." F. Schyler Mathews in Fieldbook of Wild Birds and their Music says, "His song is only remarkable for its splendid style; neither in melody or rhythm does it show any adherence to rule."

The best description, though, is that the catbird is "very playful, full of droll pranks and quaint performances. I say, "Hey, you, get off of my patch!" Please take your drollery, quaint or otherwise, to another stage!

At press time, the patch is catbird free!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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