Today’s post is difficult for me, as it not only marks the failed ending of something I’d been greatly looking forward to, but it also brings into play some questions about nature and our relationship with it as people.
This last month I made the decision to take down my backyard bird feeder. It’s been in place for almost 18 months, since the ground thawed enough for me to install it in the backyard of our new home. This is the first time that I’ve owned my own property and been free to use it as I like, and a bird feeder was high on my list of priorities even through the stress of the move.
It wasn’t an easy decision to take it down, and when I look at the situation I find that there are three factors that made me do it:
1) Nature of bird population – the overwhelming majority of the birds that visited my feeder were House Sparrows, with only a handful of other species mixed in. When I’d go out back, they would sit in the neighboring trees and bushes and call to me to refill the feeder. As soon as it as filled and I went back indoors, flocks of thirty or more birds would descend on my lawn.
Although I wasn’t aware of it at first, House Sparrows are an invasive species. They displace other native birds (in habitat, at feeders, and in nesting boxes), they adapt to eat almost any food that is offered, and they eat voraciously. The ones that had staked a claim to my feeder had, in the course of the summer, become noticeably, visibly fat.
2) Fouling – where you find this many birds, you are bound to find an equal amount of bird poop. In addition to the grassy area, my backyard contains a sidewalk and a patio with an awning cover. I spent an entire afternoon the other day cleaning. Or more specifically, removing bird shit from my patio, its cover,the swing and outdoor cushions, my outdoor dining set, the sidewalk, the driveway, the fence, and my back porch.
It was a lot of work, and work that I had already completed several times before. We’re planning on having friends over for BBQs before the summer is out, and there’s no way I could invite guests when there was bird poop on everything. It’s unsanitary and embarrassing. And as soon as I’d get it clean, the birds would return and mess it up again.
3) Expense – in terms of total expense, keeping a bird feeder was, well, expensive! The hours I spent cleaning up after the birds weren’t free – that as time and energy taken away from other pursuits. To say nothing of the monetary expense, which was mounting. Cleaning products, feeders, squirrel baffles and the like aside, the mere cost of the seed itself adds up. A 40 lb bag of black oil sunflower seeds only lasted a few weeks before I’d be driving back to Home Depot for another.
Enter part two of this problem: the most reasonably priced seed was available there. Any bag smaller than 40 lbs was more expensive per-pound, and in the past few months finding a 40 lb bag that wasn’t torn open and missing a portion of it’s contents has been impossible. I’ve argued with Home Depot about it a couple of times, not wanting to pay full price for a bag that’s below weight, but nothing seems to be done about the root cause, whatever it is.
Taken all together, these three elements pushed me over, and I made the decision to take the feeder down. Almost as soon as the pole was bare, the birds stopped coming. I don’t even hear them much now. My lawn and patio are, thankfully, remaining clean. But there’s an empty spot in my heart, where I miss my little bird friends.
It’s made worse when I visit my friend Paul’s home, and watch the birds visit his feeders. Paul has the variety I wished for, a whole collection of various finches, titmice, cardinals, nuthatches, and others. But he also has landscaping that offers the birds cover and perches in a way that mine did not.
But what of the ethical questions involved?
While reading online about House Sparrows in an effort to find away around this problem, I found that there were two camps: those who felt it was okay to trap and remove (ie: kill) animals that were deemed “pests,” and those who found that idea abhorrent.
Me, personally, I’m not about to go outside and starting killing Sparrows, even if they are a pest. But I will squash bugs in my gardens, or poison ants when they invade my yard. And as a child, I shot chipmunks with a BB gun when they overran my parents yards. So I find myself in an ethical gray area there, where I apparently find it okay to practice wildlife control in some cases, depending on the animal and the situation.
At a different level, there was the assertion online that putting yourself at odds with wildlife once it became inconvenient was morally wrong. And I find this a difficult and troubling issue, even to reconcile in my own mind.
To the man who has a woodchuck move in under his garage and seeks to remove it, I’m sympathetic. Although to be fair, we say “remove” when what we most often mean is “trap and kill.”
I’m perfectly okay with having a deer hunting season, given the gross overpopulation of the deer herds and the subsequent damage they cause (to say nothing of the inherent epidemic and starvation risks to the animals themselves, now that we’ve removed their natural predators. Oh, and there’s that word “removed” again!)
On the other hand, I’m not okay with people removing birds nests containing eggs, or especially hatchlings, because their location is inconvenient. And obviously I’m not okay with killing flocks of sparrows just because they overrun my feeder.
But what of the broader accusation, that because the sparrows became inconvenient to me, I’m no longer willing to deal with them?
I am a wildlife photographer, amateur naturalist, and general lover of the outdoors – and I find that idea that, once nature is inconvenient it no longer has any value and can be tossed aside, to be purely vile. I disagree with that stance on every level, and I believe that this is the exact reason why we have polluted lands and waters, endangered species, and perhaps even have an ongoing man-made mass-extinction event.
Nature is not something that be deemed valuable or otherwise based on it’s level of convenience to us.
Now I’m not equating my taking down a backyard bird feeder with a mass-extinction event. It’s midsummer, food is plentiful, and the birds have clearly moved elsewhere to feed (most likely to other neighborhood feeders, which are plentiful).
But if this issue is viewed as a ethical, moral spectrum, then I still fall somewhere on it. And were does that leave me?
**Follow up notes: after writing this, I still find myself conflicted, and deeply troubled by the idea that, on some level, after finding nature inconvenient, I dispelled it. On the other hand, I remind myself of the habitats I have created in my lawn, the gardens and trees have planted. For instance, over the past two weeks the birds have been feeding on the sunflowers I planted, which had gone to seed.
I am also investigating ways of providing food for specific birds during difficult periods of the year, such as migration and the deep cold snaps of winter. Fruit, nuts, and more specific seed choices are all elements I’m looking into. I don’t want to eliminate birds from my lawn – or my life – by any stretch of the imagination.
I just don’t want to be supporting hoards of invasive sparrows, either.