Feeder Tales, Part 2: First visitors

We put up our feeder for the first time in July.  Close to the feeder, outside the apartment, were a tree that resembles a paper birch and a couple of redwoods, in which hummingbirds and chickadees take refuge. By checking the area underneath the feeder for seed husks and bird droppings, we guessed that no bird spent any significant amount of time at the feeder for the first two days. This appears to be natural, as the birds need some time to discover a new food source in their territory. It was from the paper birch, that our feeder got its first visitors.

On the third morning, a chestnut-backed chickadee perched on the Y-shaped wire from which the feeder hangs. This is a tiny bird that looks like most chickadees except for a generous coat of chestnut brown on its back and shoulders.  The bird perched down, picked up a seed and quickly shot back to the birch tree. It had a companion. No sooner had the first bird completed its errand, than the second bird came forth and did the same. This alternating feeding pattern appears to go on for some time, and one wonders whether it is just the natural gregariousness of chickadees, or a way to ensure that one bird always keeps watch while the other feeds. On occasion, there would be one chickadee performing acrobatics on the feeder wire, while the other quickly pecked at a seed or two, it was rare to see two or more chickadees feeding simultaneously. At any rate, chickadees are among the cleanest feeders (unlike finches), as they seem to eat very little and thus shed very tiny droppings. They make a pleasant to-do while feeding, enjoying their own acrobatics, and this appears to attract other songbirds to the feeder.

During the second week, one of the chickadees enlisted a new companion for his trips from the birch to the feeder and back – an Oregon Junco. The two birds repeated the alternate feeding ritual. From then on, juncos have been regular visitors to the feeder. We have developed a special fondness for juncos, as it was a junco that prompted us to install the feeder in the first place. They make a faint “chip, chip chip” sound as they hop about the gazebo, or on the tarp below. They’re bigger than the chickadees, more conservatively attired in black and reddish brown feathers, and not as flighty as the little busybodies. They’re also not as confrontational as jays and finches. In fact, when the feeder is occupied by chickadees or finches, the juncos seem to be perfectly content to hop about on the tarp below, picking up un-eaten seeds that have fallen down along with the husk.

The feeder’s most voracious and messy visitors – a group of house finches – discovered the feeder a few days after the chickadees. Most summer days, before driving to work, I would hear a couple of finches singing in the parking lot, and I hoped they would find the feeder soon. They generally come to the feeder in pairs, the male distinguished by his red head and chest feathers, and the female a drabber brown and beige. The first order of duty appears to be to shoo any and all smaller birds that may already be at the feeder. Then, they proceed to boss each other around, spending equal amounts of time devouring the seed and warning away other birds, including other finches. The males seem to be slightly more aggressive than the females, though this varies. One female in particular has a really weird pattern of eating. She enters the gazebo entirely — different from the others, who prefer to perch on the edge and peck at the seed that falls forth from a transparent plastic cylinder at its center — and spends a long time contemplatively chewing on the seed. I have often wondered whether this bird was ill, and unable to move, for she stayed in the feeder and remained so docile that even our non-confrontational juncos dared to approach the gazebo from the other side to sneak away a seed or two. The finches create quite a mess, both in terms of un-eaten seed that spills forth onto the tarp, and in the copious amounts of bird droppings. When I see the finches having their feeding frenzy, I feel grateful to the juncos that clean up below them on the tarp.

In the summer of 2014, the birds were quite voracious, and the cylinder of bird seed was emptied within a couple of weeks. We developed a routine of sorts; every couple of weeks, we replaced the birdseed and cleaned up the husks and droppings from the tarp below. This state of affairs, unfortunately, did not last very long, and the feeder had to be taken down and moved elsewhere, as it inconvenienced the neighbors in the apartment downstairs. This changed the patterns of avian activity at the feeder, and encouraged new species to pay us a visit, but that will have to wait for another post.

Feeder Tales, Part 1: For a Junco

It has been a very long time coming, but it is good to finally begin writing a blog post again. Surely, most readers of this blog have moved on after being starved of updates for months on end. If you, dear reader (old or new), find your way to Mirkwood, allow me at least to provide an original — and completely true — excuse.

Much has happened in the eight months since the last post was written. I said goodbye to my beloved Cambridge, and moved back to California. P flew to Cambridge to help me pack, and we crossed the country by train, marveling at the changing landscape. Soon after reaching San Francisco, we launched into the insanity of looking for — and moving into — a different apartment. And then, before we had begun to ease into domesticity, P and I both started new jobs in a hectic Bay Area summer. Visits from the parents followed, and work-related travel and a couple of tooth surgeries for me and a bicycle accident for P, so that there was little energy left to read or to blog. There are some captivating books waiting to be read at home, but this post is not about my reading. It is about our shared experience of installing and maintaining a bird feeder.

A couple of years earlier, P had purchased a lovely bird feeder, made of cedar wood and shaped like a gazebo. She had also bought some birdseed that was especially suited to songbirds. When I visited California, we would talk of hanging it up and attracting birds. However, when you visit each other only for short periods, and several months of yearning, planning and conversation has to be compressed into a weekend reunion, other things must take precedence over the installation of bird feeders. So, P’s feeder sat empty on her patio, gathering dust, raindrops and fall leaves, a forlorn reminder of the way we had lived for so long, three-thousand miles apart. When we finally moved in together, I guiltily moved the feeder from the old apartment to the new one and there, as a mute witness to our suddenly busy life together, it again sat unused beside our plants for a long time. It would take a little junco to change all that.

On one of our rare quiet weekends this year, we were standing inside the house, looking out together, when an Oregon junco flew onto the patio and started pecking it’s way around the plants. It went this way and that, until, after a few random-seeming darts, it found the dusty feeder and began to investigate. Owing either to the experience of past feeders, or to a mysterious avian instinct, the bird gave the gazebo a thorough once-over, pecking occasionally but, of course, finding no birdseed in answer. This melted P’s heart and a decision was made then and there: The feeder had to go up and fulfill its intended purpose. Plans were hatched; locations were scouted; the feeder was washed and dried; birdseed was poured, and a custom wire was cut and crimped in the span of a single afternoon. We settled on a spot in the patio that was close to trees, a deciduous tree that looks like a paper birch and two redwoods, which would provide songbirds with a hideout to which they could hastily return in order to stay safe from predators. We anticipated (rightly, as it turned out), that the birds would make a mess below the feeder, so a tarp was placed underneath to collect stray seed and bird droppings. Then we waited.

Nobody came on the first day. Or the second. On the third day, some chickadees on the birch tree discovered the hanging feeder, did some acrobatics on the wires and helped themselves to a few seeds. True to their gregarious nature, they bustled about making tiny, frequent calls, drawing the attention of house finches and juncos. Tentatively first, then with some regularity, until a week later, the birds were coming in droves. And in the midst of a  damp, cold, rainy season the like of which California has not seen in a long time, they still keep coming. Our casual observations of birds frolicking at a feeder provide instant amazement and present opportunities to learn about avian life. Over time, however, the two of us have come to realize that there is also something more: As the birds come and go with the seasons, they quietly remind us that we are, finally, experiencing a continuum in time. Together. It took us a while.

[I intend to write more about the feeder, alternating between posts about the species of birds that grace it, and posts about the complications that arise from having a feeder in an apartment dwelling. This may turn out to be interesting.]


“The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.”

Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds.


Dance of Galaxies

Whenever I watch a science documentary, I think of Carl Sagan and the book version of Cosmos and the seemingly limitless ocean of inspiration that was presented to me in those pages, to draw from in times both good and bad. Cosmos has such a ridiculously sacred place in my heart that I’ve been very guarded and skeptical about the follow-up series that is currently being shown on many channels. However,  watching episode 3 tonight, an irrepressible jolt of happiness returned once more to poke through my melancholy fog, when Neil deGrasse Tyson described the collision of galaxies. I sense in the concluding quote, the lyrical hand of Ann Druyan:

[…] one last prophecy: Using nothing more than Newton’s Laws of Gravitation, we astronomers can confidently predict that 7 billion years from now, our home galaxy, the Milky Way, will merge with our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda. Because the distances between the stars are so great compared to their sizes, few, if any, stars in either galaxy will actually collide. Any life on the worlds of that far-off future should be safe, but they will be treated to an amazing billion-year-long light show, a dance of a half-trillion stars, to music first heard on one little world by a man who had but one true friend.”

[When Knowledge Conquered Fear (Episode 3)]

Footnote humor

I found today an enjoyable little footnote in Elliptic Tales, a recent book on elliptic curves and number theory written by Boston College professors Avner Ash and Robert Gross. The book is a tough and ambitious undertaking with the goal of explaining one of the most difficult areas of mathematics to a general readership. Even though I have a little more mathematical training than a lay reader, the book has been slow going, partly because of the difficult subject and partly because real life events have been too important to spare any reading time at all.

In the middle of the book, the authors define abelian groups. Briefly, an abelian group is a set of elements G endowed with a mathematical operation R that satisfies five properties:

  1. Closure: If a, b lie in G, then a R b is also in G.
  2. Associativity: (a R b) R c = a R (b R c).
  3. Symmetry: a R b = b R a.
  4. Existence of a neutral element z such that a R z = a.
  5. Existence of an “inverse” element, such that for every a, there exists -a, such that a R (-a) = z.

From there, the authors go on to describe a generator subgroup. This is a subset of G and consists of a few elements from G that can be combined using the operation R to generate the all elements of G. For example, if R is taken to be the addition operation, then the elements of the set {2,5} can be combined according to 2m + 5n to generate the entire set of integers using appropriate values for m and n. Here, m and n are not really multipliers (since the operation of multiplication hasn’t been explicitly defined) but just a shorthand way of writing 2 + 2 + … m times + 5 + 5 + … n times. Thus {2, 5} is a generator because 2 and 5 are relatively prime. With this explanation on generators came a sly footnote that made me smile:

We make the convention that the one-element group is generated by nothing at all. Since 0 has to be there, it doesn’t need to be generated. Theological analogies will be left to the reader.