The Birdbath

We recently discovered that a flock of finches is called a “charm of finches,” a factoid that seems completely in character for these pretty songsters. For the two years we’ve lived in this apartment, we’ve watched, and written about, the house finch population residing in the building across from us.

One observation we’ve made is that they are extremely skittish. Our balcony is visible from both my studio and our living room. If we make any move within either of those rooms while finches are on our balcony, they vamoose. So, in an attempt to encourage more, and longer, finch visits to our balcony, I became obsessed with the idea of a birdbath.

Many years ago when I lived in the mountains, I put a birdbath on my deck. It was used by mountain bluebirds, Cassin’s finches, juncoes, white-crowned sparrows and Stellar’s jays. The daily ablutions of all of these birds delighted me beyond all explanation. Although we live in the city now, I was determined to see if I could lure our neighborhood finches, or robins or crows or swallows to splash in my birdbath.

I haunted gift shops, garden centers, hardware stores, grocery stores, department stores — searching for the perfect birdbath. It had to be small, it had to be ceramic, and it had to be pretty. Other requirement were that it be shallow, and that there be a rim upon which birds could perch while drinking or fluffing their feathers after bathing.

There is a garden center about a 20-minute walk from our place. I go there every spring to buy herbs for my balcony garden. One warm morning in late May I was getting itchy to start planting and realized I needed a small, hand-held garden spade, and some herbs to plant. Car-free as we are, it is a nice walk through the neighborhoods to the garden center and whatever little plants I buy, I can easily carry home. As I cruised around the greenhouse enjoying the earthy smell and tempting flowering plants, I found myself in the yard ornament department and there it was… the perfect birdbath. It met all the requirements: small, shallow, ceramic, pretty, had a rim, and it was a good price. It didn’t seem very heavy and the bowl and pedestal were separate so I felt I could carry it home.

The BirdbathI paid the cashier, put my little spade and plants in the bowl, and braced it with one hand. The other hand, I wrapped around the pedestal base and started walking home. During my visit to the garden center, the air temperature had climbed to a sunny 85 degrees. It was high noon and as I put one foot in front of the other, the birdbath got heavier with every step I took. I had to stop frequently to put down my burden and rest. After a 20-minute walk turned into what felt like a forced march, I finally made it home, sweaty, thirsty and HOT.

Jim took one look at me and what I had done and just shook his head. But I had a birdbath and as exhausted as I was, I was happy. I filled the birdbath with water and positioned it in the corner of the balcony, up close to the railing where birds could perch just before diving in, and waited.

Truth be told, I have witnessed a bird in the bath only once, but I know they use it when I’m not watching. I find bird droppings on the railing and an occasional feather in the water so I know. The birds are just shy and don’t want to be watched so they bathe or drink quietly. Sometimes a male finch will sing his beautiful song while perched on the railing above the birdbath. I like to think he is telling his flock-mates all about how nice it is to have a spa in the neighborhood. I’m sure of it.

Six Years

Six years ago today, Jim and I declared our independence from middle class life and drove out of Idaho headed for Colorado. Ten days later, we rode out of Colorado on bicycles loaded with clothes, food and camping gear, and began our journey across America. (You can read the story on this site.)

We returned to Colorado in August of 2011 and settled into a small apartment in the heart of Denver. After our 25 years of living in Wyoming and Idaho, with Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in our backyard, we were now urban dwellers. No longer do the howls of coyotes  and wolves, the hooting of owls or bugling of elk fill our nights; now sirens, train whistles and klaxon horns interrupted our sleep.

No longer can we step out of our door and enter a wilderness to hike or ski or canoe or bird or botanize. Now we step out of our door onto a concrete sidewalk, a traffic-swollen street, and wildlife visible only spilling out of the bars on Broadway.

We sorely miss the wildness of the places we’ve lived, but we have learned, over time, how to find the less-tamed places in our city. Birds and wildflowers, and sometimes coyotes and deer, have surprised us in the old neighborhoods and parks of front range Colorado. We’ve learned that the animals we share our planet with don’t adhere to the human constructed borders and boundaries that define our cities, towns and urban greenways. Birds nest wherever the conditions provide enough food and shelter to raise a nest-full of youngsters. Prairie dogs colonize any flat, dry, sandy-soiled field where they can construct a burrow community and provide an unobstructed view of possible predators.

Coyotes prowl the edges of backyards, prairie dog towns, parks and waterways, searching for food — be it dog kibble, young prairie dogs, squirrels, or duck and goose eggs. Opportunistic skunks, raccoons and squirrels make pests of themselves scavenging trash bins, birdseed and pet food. Nocturnal Western cottontail rabbits munch on the grass and flowers of suburban gardens. Deer quietly browse shrubs in parks and greenways. Once, a long-tailed weasel flashed across the Highline Canal bikeway in front of us.


Geraniums on the balcony

This morning we sat on our balcony sipping our first espressos of the day and watched a wild bee maraud the flowers of our bright red geranium. This bee was relentless in stuffing its pollen baskets and mining nectar from every single blossom’s flower. Round and round the plant it flew, hovering over each blossom for only a nanosecond, testing the air for the electrical currents generated by pollen. According to scientists, as bees fly around flowers, their own positively charged bodies attract negatively charged pollen grains that fasten themselves to the bee’s body. We watched that bee through two rounds of espresso and breakfast, and still it returned time and time again.

This morning we also noticed that young crows have fledged and their parents are working hard at teaching them to fly with more confidence and accuracy. A murder of crows landed on a low roof and concrete wall below our balcony, squawking and calling repeatedly to each other and their parents. They are such intelligent birds, they surely must have been communicating their fears and accomplishments to one another. After a raucous few minutes, they all flew off to continue their conversation elsewhere.

The charm of finches inhabiting the fretwork of the balconies on the building across from us seems to be raising a second brood. We can hear the urgent peeping of nestlings as the adults fly off to gather food for them. From our balcony we have watched agile sharp-shinned hawks swoop in silently, talons out, aiming for those very same finches. Cooper’s hawks have discovered the bounty of pigeons scavenging the dumpsters behind the nearby grocery store. Cormorants, white pelicans and Canada geese fly by our building as they move between Denver’s lakes and ponds. Red-tailed hawks soar high above the 100-foot Ponderosa pines in our view, and an occasional bald eagle graces our neighborhood skies.

So here we are — living the suburban life and finding bits of nature to feed our souls in unlikely places. If you have read previous blog installments here, you will know all about the house finch population that entertains us year round. You may also have read about our walks and bike rides along the Highline Canal where more that two dozen bird species have delighted us with their songs and birds activities. Stay tuned for more.