I built a birdhouse this week. In these ecologically sensitive times, being a bird-watcher has become a sign that you are in tune with the pulsations of the planet. But it wasn't peer pressure that had me hammering away. It was the Cub Scouts, or maybe the first-grade science teacher. Some authority figure had presented one of my kids with a birdhouse kit, and the kid, in turn, had brought the kit home and ordered me to help him assemble it.
I worked on it during a snow day, one of those no-school occasions when the husband and wife flip a coin at breakfast to see who stays home from work to mind the kids. The loser stays home in the morning, when the kids are still frisky. The winner gets the afternoon, when the kids are so tired that they might fall asleep in front of the television.
I lost the flip and building the birdhouse was one of the events of a busy morning. First there was the shoveling of the snow, then the sledding down the hill, then the moaning over the breaking of the sled, followed by the losing of the gloves.
By the time I got to the basement and started to assemble the birdhouse, one kid had already left home seeking the company of his buddies, and the other kid had invited two friends to play at our house.
How many people did it take to put together an eight-piece wooden birdhouse? In this case, four. Three kids and a dad. Almost everyone got a swing or two of the hammer. And this dad, in the ultimate demonstration of faith in America's youth, held the nails.
As bird dwellings go, this one was the "starter house" of residences. It was small.
When I asked my kid what kind of birds would live in this house, he gave me the obvious answer: "Little birds."
The trouble is that I think we live in a big-bird neighborhood. The footprints in the snow that I had spotted earlier in the morning belonged to the birds that have become the unofficial mascot of our alley, pigeons. These wide-bodied pigeons are too burly to squeeze through the door of our birdhouse.
Then there are the crows, who seem to show up on the day the trash is picked up. And the grackles, who in the dead of winter eat the yellow seeds from our Japanese pagoda tree then sit on a telephone wire and make deposits, dead center, on car hoods. Pigeons, crows and grackles are not the kind of neighbors I wanted. I want to encourage a more civilized type to live with us.
So I sought advice from some of the biggest fans of birds I know, my parents. For 13 years, ever since my father retired, he and my mother have fed and watered the birds that fly into their Kansas City back yard. Watching from their kitchen window they have seen finches and bluebirds, chickadees, robins, cardinals, rose-headed sparrow, and blue jays drawn to the hanging feeder or nearby birdbath. In the winter my dad defrosts the birdbath. "When it freezes, I see the birds out there looking mournful," he explained.
Using her well-thumbed guidebook, "Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification" (Golden Press), my mom identifies distinguished visitors to the feeder.
While they enjoy tending to the birds, my parents had little interest in keeping up with the latest chatter among bird-watchers.
When, for example, I told my mother I was going to send her a new book, "Feed the Birds" by Helen and Dick Witty (Workman $8.95) that tells people how they can serve leftovers, or cook up special dishes for the birds, my mom laughed. That might be going too far, she said, depending on how much cooking is involved.
Similarly my dad said he had not paid much attention to the debate over whether putting silhouettes of owls on windows will keep birds from flying into the glass and hurting themselves. Some bird-watchers say the silhouettes work. Others say they don't and recommend either putting non-reflective glass in windows near bird feeders, or hanging nets over the windows. My dad said it is very seldom that a bird hits their window.
Now that we have a birdhouse, I am looking forward to watching the birds work. I like the idea of teaming up with nature, of adding beauty to the back yard and at the same time letting those birds attack the backyard bugs.
And speaking of bugs, while my mom said that the resident of tTC our new birdhouse will probably be a chickadee, I am hoping for bats.
Not only would bats eat mosquitoes by the beakful, they would also provide a unique form of home security. Nobody is going to mess with a house that has bats.