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Inside the Outdoors: Backyard birds face our judgments, too

PinenandLakes.com Illustration

When it comes to attracting birds to your backyard, it's hard to beat an ornamental crabapple tree. Not the kind that a youngster would pilfer sour-tasting fruit from, but tiny crabapples less than an inch or so across that turn a deep red as they wither in late fall, and which many birds feed on as eagerly as we'd dig into an apple pie.

Robins load up on them in our trees as they prepare to migrate southward. Cedar and Bohemian waxwings stop by for them in the depths of winter. I've even seen chickadees, those seed, nut and suet-eating dynamos, perch on a gnarled branch and pick at the fruit.

On one particular morning it was a cluster of house finches. The house finch is attractive in an understated way. The males — as with most songbirds, the more colorful of the sexes — seem like an artwork-in-progress, left unfinished when the artist ran out of paint. Imagine one of the several species of sparrows, which are mostly some pattern of brown, buff and similarly muted camouflaging colors. Then dip your Audubon brush in a slightly watered-down red, and dab it on the bird's upper breast, the top of its head, and add just a dab or so on the nape of its neck. The result would be a pretty good representation of a house finch, even though finches and sparrows — very similar in appearance — are from different songbird families.

The dozen or so house finches were working over our heavy crop of withered apples, mostly in the upper branches where I had a bird's-eye view from an upstairs window at exactly their level. They fed avidly for about a half hour, and then were gone. While you might find birds at your feeders at any hour, feeding in winter is often episodic, especially when it's really cold. Feed, then retreat to sheltering vegetation to minimize the loss of body heat; then feed again later in the day.

Another "house" bird that's with us throughout the winter is the house sparrow, though when I was a youngster it was called an English sparrow, owing to its importation from Europe in the 1850's. Interested in songbirds from a very young age, I remember it also being referred to as a "weaver finch," which goes to show that even bird experts — ornithologists, we call them — can be indecisive. Today they're considered sparrows, and "house" is an appropriate adjective, since they are most at home in neighborhoods, and uncommon in forest, prairie or other unsettled environments.

Its secret to success is associating with humans, from scavenging undigested grains left in the wake of horse-drawn wagons on the streets of New York City where it was introduced in 1851, competing with the pigeons for food on city sidewalks, and outcompeting native birds to feed on the seeds of domestic plantings, or at your backyard feeder.

Ornithologists admit that telling finches and sparrows apart can be difficult, even for some experienced birders. Both eat seeds and grains, and have bills that are well-suited to breaking them. Finches' bills are slightly finer, often smaller and more pointed, as finches tend to eat seeds and grains that are smaller. Nyjer thistle, about the size and color of an exposed pencil lead, is a favorite with finches, including the smaller goldfinch. Sparrows generally have a bill that is larger and thicker than a finch, the better to crack larger seeds and grains, including sunflower seeds.

One of the ironies of both the human world and the animal world is that we applaud success or survival, yet we may dislike the behaviors that sometimes lead there. Behaviors like aggressiveness, bullying, and intimidation are generally looked down upon by people who are not into that themselves. House finches are social, gregarious, but not domineering. House sparrows, on the other hand, will take over a feeder and chase less aggressive songbirds away. For this reason they're widely disliked, much like other aggressive birds including the crow and the common grackle.

Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that a bird that survived first as an immigrant on the streets of New York City would be aggressive and resourceful! Attributing human traits to a bird may be illogical. Yet the house sparrow is now one of the most globally widespread and abundant songbirds, so perhaps it's not illogical after all.

As I've discovered in nearing the yonder side of middle age, most of us have at least some events in our past that we're less than proud of. One such event for me combined the still-developing brain of an adolescent, an English or house sparrow and a BB gun. It was a lesson in valuing life for its own sake that I learned from the act of taking it.

I can still envision my easing open the storm window, and pushing the barrel of the BB gun through the narrow crack, with the caution of a sniper. In fact, that's what I was. The sparrow was perched in a bush across the backyard. Had it been a cardinal, a robin or a chickadee, I'm sure I wouldn't have entertained the thought of doing what I was about to do.

I held the little rifle steady, and a millisecond after pressing the trigger a tiny copper pellet rocketed across the yard, and the bird fell from the bush to the grass below. It lay there, wings beating; then they were still and I felt the immediate remorse of knowing that there had been no point or purpose to what I had done.

I've been a hunter for almost a half century, and hunt with an enthusiasm that hasn't diminished over those many years. There have certainly been lapses in judgement or skill. Lapses like shooting at a bird at the edge of reasonable range, or misidentifying a duck on the wing. But the lesson I learned in killing an "undesirable" songbird as a young boy has not left me. There is purpose in hunting skillfully and with the intent to use the creature whose life you may take. It's that purpose that is most of the difference between hunting and killing.