Feed the birds

You need a guide to keep track of the local visitors.

We’re nearing the end of apple picking season and there’s not much left on the trees. We have two apple trees in our front yard. It took some research to learn they are king pippins. We have the trees trimmed and looked after every year by Arborist Archer LLC; he also grooms the area around their trunks and does a little fertilizing. The result of his efforts is we have amazingly abundant trees. No exaggeration, we ate or gave away well over 200 apples this year — some of it going to the local food bank — and the trees are still not bare.

The birds are working on that.

I work from home and my desk faces the front windows, giving me a view of the yard, if not the porch. I realize this column is called, “View from the Porch,” but the porch is off the kitchen, not the living room, which is where I work. The yard is fenced in and there is a gate, which I like because it is a busy street and the fence creates a bit of a barrier. That hasn’t stopped passersby from grabbing an apple or so off the trees since some of the limbs dangle over the fence.

I don’t mind at all people taking an apple or two or even three at a time.

But a few folks have shown themselves to be just plain greedy.

The birds, to return to the birds, are greedy. In fact, they’re voracious.

I watch them for hours at a time in the afternoon, pecking away at the fruit.

This time of year, the apples remaining on the trees are super sweet. They are at their peak for sugar content.

I’m not much of an ornithologist. I only recently learned to differentiate between a tern and a gull and am easily baffled by the different varieties of gulls common to this region. My husband gifted me with a copy of “Birds of the Pacific Northwest,” the Falcon Pocket Guide edition, and it’s been quite helpful identifying the different birds.

Attracted to the trees and shrubs (in summer we have blueberries) I’ve seen hummingbirds, woodpeckers, mourning doves, and the occasional sapsucker. We’ve been visited by jays, and there are lots of crows. I get excited when I see a tiny chickadee because the crows scare most of the smaller birds off.

The bird that has come to dominate my front yard, however, is the European starling, also known as Sturnus vulgaris. And they are vulgar, these birds, as they are very pushy. The dozen or so who have taken up residence in our mini-orchard have clearly communicated to all the other birds that when it comes to the apples, they’re the bosses.

It’s fascinating to observe how they all swoop in at once. They converge on the trees and peck away with machine precision for two to three minutes before something alarms them and they all fly off. They’re methodical, returning to apples still on the tree whose thick skins they’ve already penetrated, working away at whatever hole they’ve made until the apple is demolished.

They’re nothing if not industrious.

Starlings are strong and fast; they can reach speeds up to 48 mph. Scientists say they can taste salt, sugar, citric acids, and tannins found in grapes and acorns.They know the difference between table sugar and other kinds of sugar, which is important since they can’t digest sucrose. I’ve read starlings are outstanding vocal mimics who can imitate the calls of up to twenty other species of birds.

So far they haven’t learned to imitate the saxophone, a sound frequently heard around our house.

I’ll miss the birds in a few weeks when the apples are all gone.

Meanwhile as an excuse not to work, they’ve been quite diverting. Certainly an improvement on checking my email every 15 minutes or going on Facebook.

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