Monday, September 17, 2012

Where the wild things are: the denizens of the yard, or, does this Magic Halo thing really work?

I've been weeding the patio of crabgrass lately. It's an endless job. But while I'm out there for hours on end (it seems), I see some interesting denizens. Three or four squirrels, the chippy who lives here, two cats who treat our yard as their own personal hunting ground--unsatisfactorily, I should add. And then there is the skunk.

One evening after dark, I was sitting out on the patio steps with our cat Minky in my arms. It was the first time I'd taken her out of doors at night. So we were sitting there, and I had just felt her tension relax at being held in my arms, instead of being able to skulk around secretly underneath the bushes, where she would be more at home. We're sitting there, and I too relax, realizing she's not going to make a run for it. Capel's reading his iPad, behind us, sitting on a patio chair.

When suddenly her head whips around, I feel her tense, I follow her gaze to my left, and there is the nose of a shy little skunk, barreling around the corner of the breakfast room addition. Clearly, it has no idea that we sometimes sit out at night. It looks happy to see us. But, I think--Whoa! I am not happy to see you, cute as you are. "Skunk!" I say outloud, in what I think is a calm voice, meanwhile, clutching Minky and, making myself as small as possible, hunching up around her to make her less of a threat to the impending little black-and-white-striped stinker, and making a dive for the back door.

I'm inside in three seconds flat, Capel behind me. Noone was hanging around waiting to see what the skunk would do. He (or she) did look awfully cute, very shy, and totally harmless. But someone around here must make a stink, because there are mornings when I drive through the neighborhood and the skunk has clearly let loose.

So--there is at least one wild thing here.

And, around our birdfeeder, slightly less wild house finches, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, cardinals, mourning doves, woodpeckers--hairy, downy and yellow-bellied.

And then, of course, the totally unwild-seeming, ubiquitous house sparrows. We have an enormous flock of house sparrows.

Or at least, we HAD house sparrows until the Magic Halo outwitted them.

When we moved in about a year ago, one of the first things I noticed, and liked, was a flock of sparrows that would swoop in on the miniscule gravel drive or the margins of the road to peck away at grass seeds. Perhaps they're always like this, or perhaps because the last owner was infirm and not out in the yard so often, they really seemed to treat the yard as their own space--as did the squirrel, in fact. Frequently, I would surprise them or they would surprise me, and everyone was surprised to see everyone, as if it had been some time since the yard was frequented by the human species.

So anyway, I liked the flock of sparrows. They're energetic, quirky, fun to watch as they rise and settle in a mass, like a sheet being flung over a bed, lifting and settling several times until it comes down straight.

Until, sometime this past winter, I put out bird feeders. One for the little birds and a thistle feeder for the goldfinches. Immediately, the sparrows glaumed onto the feeder, zooming in and out in an acrobatic circus. And at first I was worried that there weren't any other birds around, but by and by other birds found the feeder, and I saw cardinals, blue jays, and woodpeckers. And in the spring, goldfinches, and finally in the early summer, house finches: the raspberry-red-dipped quiet little things that I was waiting for.

And it wasn't until the spring, when we started sitting outdoors, that I realized we had a problem. We would sit out in the evening on the patio, when the shade would come over the back of the house and the porch would be glaring in the afternoon sun. The birds would come and go. Or, in the case of the sparrows, mostly come and not leave, squabbling angrily amongst each other and pecking at the more shy finches, flying at perched birds to knock them off their spots. That made me angry, so I got online to see what was up with that, and soon learned that house sparrows are more aggressive--well, yes, I saw that clearly--that they are cavity nesters and force out other quieter cavity nesters, like house finches, and--worst of all--that they reproduce several times a summer. A pair of house sparrows can have up to six or eight progeny a year, and a couple can turn into an unruly flock in a matter of a few years.

I knew then that I had a problem. I don't mind having a flock around, as long as their numbers are controlled somewhat by the availability of "wild" food -- grass seed, etc. If I'm feeding them, though, there's no limit to their numbers and they really will crowd out everything else.

So, I went on the hunt for solutions and found this thing called the Magic Halo, a device that hangs above the bird feeder and that discourages sparrows, but not most other species. Something about their natural flying and foraging habits. It claims to discourage 90 percent of house sparrows and there are reviews online to prove it--as well as reviews to counter the claim, of course.

I was skeptical, and I had so many other projects, that it took me a while to order it, but it came. Then it took me a while to figure out how to hang it, but I did. And -- nothing.

The house sparrows veered around it for about a day. Then it became their favorite perch. They would sit there see-sawing on its circle as they waited for other birds to finish eating and free up a perch at a feeder. They used it as a jumping off spot to dive-bomb other birds at the feeder. They used it as a perch to feed their young -- cute, but more than a little infuriating.

Well, the contraption of last resort, according to the Magic Halo folks, is a set of lines or wires hung from the Magic Halo. But there was a hitch. Filament or fishing line might get tangled up in the birds that are willing to venture beneath it. I REALLy didn't want to come home one day to a tiny house finch swinging dead from my Magic Halo. That would not be cool. Hobby wire was suggested, as a work-around, with a 4" nail driven into the ground to secure it beneath the feeder.

A nail? I thought. Not in my ground. Not with all the birds perching on the Halo. That would pull out in a nanosecond. So I pondered. I visited my local hardware store where the owner is happy to walk the aisles with me and suggest options for solving inane and arcane insoluble problems like this. But that angle didn't really surface any usable ideas.

Then I was at the garden store and found these stakes designed to hold up single flowers. This, I thought, might work. And so it did. Here, if you look closely, is the curved, dark green stake in the ground. Attached to it (what you can't see) is a tiny spring (which comes with the Magic Halo) and a filament of brass hobby wire (which does not come with the Halo).

Here, slightly out of the focus, but catching the light, are the hobby wires at the other end, attached to the Magic Halo:

Here, again if you look closely, on the upper right and bottom center of this photo below, are two of the stakes in the ground around the feeder pole:

And here, if you zoom in and look very closely, are all four stakes around the feeder pole:

Here is the top-end of the contraption. The Magic Halo installed with feeder pole, feeder and wires attached at four points around the diameter of the Halo.:

And here, finally, are the house finches, feeding undisturbed:

It's been several weeks. I have never seen an adult house sparrow at the feeder since. I haven't yet cleaned and re-seeded the thistle-feeder because I don't have a halo for it, and I don't want to encourage the sparrows to acclimate to the Magic Halo and its wires. 

Now, the drawback is that I also haven't seen any cardinals since I put up the wires. Or woodpeckers. And the goldfinches decamped when I stopped filling the thistle feeder. But I am seeing lots more house finches, nuthatches, titmice and chickadees. And there is peace in the yard.

P.s.:  And the house sparrows? No need to feel badly for them. They're still here, making a racket every dawn in the rhoadie out front, twittering in the gutters, blanketing the patio hunting for crabgrass seed -- and there is a lot of that around, these days. They'll be fine. They were here before the feeder ever was, and will be for many days after I pass on, no doubt.

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