My back yard is the size of a postage stamp. The soil is bad. The shade vs. light ratios are difficult. I have two black thumbs and I’m water-stingy. The neighbors are armpit close. Nearby, major streets hum with traffic. But my backyard is my plain-Jane oasis. One simple bird feeder and a watering station attract a few birds. During the season, visiting hummingbirds bring me endless delight. At 16, my cat can no longer leap fences so the backyard makes for a safe outdoor retreat for all of us.
Ignorance is bliss. Until reality bangs you on the head. My growing interest in birds made me painfully aware of the risks of communal bird feeders. The ASPCA recommends:
- Clean hanging feeders every two weeks or more.
- Rake up spilled seeds, hulls, and feces around the feeders at least once a week. Move heavily used feeders to new locations periodically, so the ground has a chance to dry out.
I have not followed this protocol. I have watched that feeder and chastised myself for not cleaning it often enough . . . or at all.
Last fall I noticed a particular common sparrow had claimed my backyard as home. I noticed because this bird looked particularly scruffy. As time went on, I noted how lethargic it seemed. While other birds flushed quickly, this little bird just sat there on the feeder. Its feathers were scruffy, particularly around the head, the eyes—the part of the bird that interacts most frequently with my not-so-clean feeder.
The bird is diseased! Oh the agony. I assiduously cleaned the feeder. But the damage was done. Every time this sparrow poked its sick head into the feeder it shared bacteria with other birds. I stopped refilling the feeder. The bird, I will call it Sally, grew more lethargic. Other birds grew more scarce. But Sally hung on. Hung onto the rung of the bird feeder like a barnacle.
It was winter. Cold. I felt guilty for abandoning the other birds who thought they’d located a trusty food source. But my food source was not trustworthy. Surely, the next cold snap would sap Sally’s strength. But she hung in there. Spring crept in. The cat wanted to go out, but I didn’t want her to take advantage of Sally’s weakened condition. I didn’t want Sally sharing her disease with the cat! The cat yowled her disapproval. Meanwhile Sally’s condition deteriorated. I was convinced she was blind. Eventually she couldn’t even fly up to the feeder but hung out on the ground pecking at the refuse. My back yard was her hospice.
But death eluded Sally. She kept hanging out. Distraught by misgivings, I threw a tablespoon of fresh seed on the ground for Sally. Worried that she needed water, I spilled water onto the concrete crack near her.
What the hell am I doing? This is prolonging the inevitable! Stop!
It is the middle of April. Last night was cold and rainy. Surely Sally is gone.
Nooooo. There is Sally, pecking, pecking, living, just barely living. I cannot put out fresh bird seed. I cannot put out the hummingbird feeders. I cannot let the yowling cat out into the sunshine because sick Sally survives.
I am traumatized.
Sally sits in a patch of sun on the walkway. She survived another damned night!
I get my shovel out of the garage. Sally doesn’t even flinch as I walk right past her on the way to the garage.
I raise the shovel over my head and slam it down on the grass to gauge the trajectory and power needed to flatten a sick bird.
I whimper and turn 45° to the right, raise the shovel over my head, cry, shut my eyes, SLAM down the shovel.
Alarmed Sally flutters erratically up, toward the garbage bins. Settles on the fence railing, shuddering in dismay. I shriek even louder.
Sally huddles on the fence rail in the corner of the fence. Behead it, I think!
Again, I miss the mark. Sally falls to the ground between fence and garbage can, utterly stunned.
Aaachhh! I raise the shovel again, this time with the sharp side pointed down and smash Sally till she is unrecognizable. Scoop her conveniently into the waiting garbage bin and slam the lid.
Open lid . . . is she really dead or flopping around in there, a headless, bloody mess?
Sally is dead.
I am devastated.
An hour later the fence has been hosed, sterilized with vinegar, the feeder soaked in vinegar, the water pan hosed and soaked with vinegar and splashed with peroxide. Feeder drying in the sun.
Cat sitting across my shoulder, purring and dreaming of reclaiming her back yard.
Dog forgive, for I have sinned.