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Always on the alert for quirky animal behavior I decided to do a little experiment this week with my faithful contingent of backyard buddies. Over time any avid bird feeder will find that many species of birds and animals develop a sense of trust that would make Walt Disney proud. Over time it’s even possible to get touching close to chickadees, doves, deer, squirrels and the various other critters that partake of the continuous free food that’s provided off the back porch year-round. It’s gotten to the point now that “my” turkeys come in every morning and if there are no sunflower seeds waiting for them they’ll come up on the porch and peck at my door till I come out with a bucketful of seed. They’ll give me some distance in the process but before I close the door behind me they rush in and start filling their crops – and never come up on the porch again till they run out of food!
Because the last few winters have been comparatively harsh I had more visitors than usual. This gave me more time to spend with and observing them, to the point that I can sit on one side of the porch railing and watch the birds, deer, foxes and raccoons come in and feed, nothing separating but a row of balusters. The smaller birds and red squirrels will come in and sit with me, some landing on me and others content to sit on the arms of my rocker. As long as I don’t move too quickly they’ll stay put until their seed is gone and they have to fly or run off to get another. This can go on all day. The smaller birds, especially chickadees, titmice and nuthatches, will land in my hand and grab a seed, and the squirrels will scamper around under my feet to get the seeds I’ve put out for them. The deer will peer cautiously at me through the railing and the foxes and ‘coons pretty much ignore me as long as I sit still.
Well, all this community camaraderie might give one the impression that he’s been accepted into the wild world as an equal. It takes weeks, even months, to get this close to wildlife where the feeder is the center of attention, but I wondered how these same birds and animals would react to me away from the comfortable confines of my back yard.
My experiment was simple enough. I would go into the woods, away from the house, hold out a handful of sunflower seed and see which critters would recognize me and accept a handout. Knew where most of the birds roosted and where the deer spent their days, I even had a few oaks nearby where squirrels maintained a den. It would be interesting to find if my backyard friends were as comfortable with my presence when we were away from the feeders and our encounters took place at random in natural woodland settings.
I must say I was a little discouraged to find that not one of them paid the least attention to me. In fact, all of them kept a fair distance and most ran or flew off typical of any wild creature that bumps into a human in the woods. I was able to get “my” chickadees to come in close for a curious, cursory look, but not one ventured near enough to be touched and none would land anywhere near me to take the free sunflower seeds I’d put out on a nearby rock. The deer and squirrels just ran, acting as they do whenever a human invades their territories. The doves were flighty as well, and the woodpeckers, blue jays and creepers wanted no part of me, either. Total distrust is the way it looked to me, and that came as a shock, especially when some of those birds had flown directly across the field to me from my own back yard!
I tried this experiment several times over the winter and spring (such as it’s been!) and have always had the same results. We’re all great friends in the back yard when it’s feeding time but otherwise: Back off!
At first I was saddened by the fact that my local feeder buddies showed such caution, but I suppose it’s for the best. They obviously don’t recognize the “it” on the porch near the feeders as me; apparently my presence is irrelevant to them while they are stuffing themselves. They all seem content to tolerate each other (and me) and intermingle as necessary to survive but once we’re all away from the feeders it’s back to intolerance, distrust and suspicion; behavior that is sorely lacking in most Disney movies!
It’s not that all these critters don’t trust only me outside the context of the back yard. At times I’ll see a dozen squirrels sitting shoulder to shoulder nibbling on seeds, plus mixed batches of birds ranging from turkeys to blue jays, cardinals, finches and chickadees, but when the party is over they split up and head their separate ways. Fifty yards into the woods there’s not a single sighting of mixed species anywhere. Away from the feeder it’s all about territory and personal space. The birds keep a discreet distance between each other and the squirrels return to their solitary lives showing no tolerance for interlopers. Even the deer have a pecking order that begins when they leave the back yard. Some go right; some go left but before long the does are separated from the bucks and the does with fawns go their own way as well. Interesting!
I’m not enough of a scientist to write a paper on the differences in behavior of birds and animals between back yards and their normal wild haunts, but the difference is noticeable, curious and even a bit shocking. All of these critters can get along more or less harmoniously for a short period, but eventually they all go back to their solitary ways. Hmmm . . . sounds a lot like us, doesn’t it?
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