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Of a feather

The Baltimore Sun

Achance discovery at a recent charity auction presented the opportunity to make good on a long-postponed ambition. It was a birdfeeder, with starter food kit.

Birds have mostly been background noise in a life jammed with more hectic and pressing activities than donning a pair of binoculars and tramping about the great outdoors.

There's reason to fear, though, that the opportunity won't last forever. Some threatened avian species are returning, but many more are disappearing as their habitat is destroyed by sprawling development and global warming. This fragility adds to the poignancy of spotting a bald eagle take flight over the Patapsco, egrets soaring over Jug Bay, a great blue heron hovering above lily pads at the headwaters of the South River, or an air force of migrating geese coming in for a landing in Patuxent River Park.

So, if anyone should ask, that's why a lonely, black pole is now standing sentry on my front lawn, offering sustenance to avian visitors who so far aren't much interested or have already taken flight.

Seed started disappearing from the hanging feeder almost right away, but the diner turned out to be a squirrel caught in the act. After the pole was equipped with a rodent-thwarting collar, action at the feeder slowed down considerably.

Folks at the local wild bird store in Annapolis cautioned patience. Birds can't smell the food; they have to see it, and that can take a while. But I'm feeling snubbed. The neighborhood is lousy with winged creatures: bluebirds and finches, crows, hawks, gulls and turkey buzzards. There are nests in my trees, but their inhabitants all seem to be perched down the street, where they chirp mockingly as I walk by with the dog.

I'm not giving up, though. Food is disappearing at an increasing rate, and none of the local squirrels has bird seed on its breath. What's more, signs of the avian digestive process have appeared on the feeder.

Gail Herald, who runs the Wild Bird Center of Annapolis with her husband, Bill - a business launched after the two escaped high-stress careers as a real estate attorney and IT executive - suggested the birds are likely feeding at dawn and dusk, and that's the best time to be peeking out the window.

What's more, spring migration should bring a hungry burst of new visitors. Purple martins come back to the Chesapeake region in March, hummingbirds follow in April, and May brings a return of the Baltimore orioles - a bit later than baseball's opening day.

Feeding birds in the yard isn't going to save many birdie lives or rescue any species. They need a bite or two of fatty suet in the frigid dead of winter - which hasn't yet arrived here - but that's about it. Protecting meadows in open space and reducing carbon emissions would do a lot more to guarantee their future. But rescue is not what drives the legions of birders who often shape their lives around the hobby and provide most of the observational data upon which scientists rely. Their obsession is witnessing a natural work of art.

Bird-watching may seem like tame sport for those who haven't grown up with the wonder of it. But Ms. Herald says many of her customers are young couples who want to share with their children the simple of joy of watching these most familiar of creatures go about their daily routines.

A lovely pastime, and one that shouldn't be put off for long. Birds might hold a grudge.

- Karen Hosler

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