Backyard Bird Diary



All illustrations by the author.

September 16, 2017

While watching hummingbirds buzz around me, I recalled a fantasy every child has: that I could win the trust of wild animals and they would willingly come to me. I imagined tiny avian helicopters dining on my palm. To lure them, I bought Lilliputian hummingbird feeders, four for $10. Hope came cheap enough, but I was also realistic. It might take months to gain a hummingbird’s interest in the feeder and for it to lose its fear of me.

Yesterday, I set a little feeder on the rail near the regular hummingbird feeders on the patio and then sat at a table about ten feet away. Within minutes, a hummingbird came to inspect, a male with a flashing red head. He hovered, gave a cursory glance, and then left. At least he noticed it. A good beginning. Then he returned, inspected it again from different angles, and left. The third time, he did a little dance around the feeder, approached, and stuck his bill in the hole and drank. I was astonished. That was fast. Other hummingbirds came, and they did their usual territorial display of chasing each other off before the victor returned. Throughout the day, I noticed that the hummingbirds seemed to prefer the little feeder over the larger one. Why was that? Because it was new and they had to take turns in claiming it?

Today, at 1:30 P.M., I sat at the patio table again. It was quiet. I called the songbirds. Each day I pair my own whistled birdsong with tidbits of food to encourage them to come. In about two minutes, I heard the raspy chitter and squeak of the titmouse and chickadee. They sounded excited to find peanuts. Then I heard the staticky sound of a hummingbird. It was a male. I had left the feeder on the table where I was sitting. I put it on my palm and held it out. Within ten seconds the hummingbird came over, landed on my hand, and immediately started feeding. I held my breath and kept my hand with the feeder as still as possible. His feet felt scratchy. He was assessing me the whole time he fed. We stared at each other, eye to eye.

I remembered what Jack Laws said: “Feel the bird. Be the bird.” What did the hummingbird see in my eyes? Is that how a bird evaluates trustworthiness? As he fed, I examined the tiny feathers on his head, the pink, orange, and red color at his throat, the wing blur, the exquisitely tiny feet. I tried to mentally recite what I was seeing so I could later draw the hummingbird: The overlay of tiny feathers on its head are successively larger as they move from the front of the bill toward the back of the head. The legs are short, and its toes are the width of dental floss. What is he noting about me?

After a minute, the hummingbird shot up into the oak tree. He had remained on the hand feeder for forty-five seconds. Or maybe my excitement had lengthened the actual duration of that moment, one that altered my life. I had gained entry into a wild animal’s world. It was my own backyard with a portal big enough for the bird I imagined myself to be. An hour later, I was seated at the patio table eating lunch when I heard the familiar sound of beating wings around my head. I am certain he was the same hummingbird because when I held up the feeder, he immediately settled and started feeding. After a minute, he flew up to my face, inches away, eye to eye. I could feel a little breeze coming off his wings. He seemed fearless, and I was slightly concerned his little sword would pierce my eye. Was he curious? Was he being aggressive, warning me that he owned the feeder? Whatever his meaning, he had come back. He had acknowledged me. We have a relationship. I am in love.

December 17, 2017

First thing in the morning, I always pull up the bathroom shades so I can see what the water looks like on the bay and harbor. It’s different every day, sometimes flat and clear, flat and sparkly, gray and choppy. Whatever birds are on the feeders usually scatter as soon as I come to the window. Yesterday, one did not, a fluffy Pine Siskin. It continued to eat. A fearless bird, I thought, or maybe a newly arrived émigré, famished from the journey. I stepped out onto the porch. It was chilly. The Pine Siskin was still sitting on the bottom of the seed feeder, eating with gusto, just two feet away from where I stood. The puffed-up coat of feathers made me think it was a baby bird. I could see soft down peeking from under the larger spread of wing feathers. At times, the Pine Siskin stopped eating and closed its eyes. I guessed it was exhausted, a young bird getting its first meal away from the nest. But then I realized it was December, not spring. Would there be baby birds this time of year? Also, the Pine Siskins are migrants, not year-round residents. They do not breed here. I saw a mess gathering around its beak, the bits of sunflower seeds it had been trying to eat. Was it possibly sick? As if in answer, it abruptly flew to me and landed on my hand. It seemed dazed. This was bad. It hopped down to the water bowl and tried to drink. Water dribbled out of its messy mouth. It sipped more frantically before returning to the feeder. I noticed more. Its rump was soiled. It was shitting watery diarrhea. And then it sat motionless with its half-closed eyes.

I contacted U.S. Fish and Wildlife and learned there is a salmonellosis outbreak across the U.S. related to an irruption of Pine Siskins—meaning, a massive migration of larger than usual numbers. Because Pine Siskins gather in social groups, a single sick Pine Siskin can easily infect its tribe and any bird that visits the same feeders and water bowls it has used. From what I read, by the time a bird is puffed out and behaving strangely—like flying to a human—it will likely die within the day. I decided to catch the bird to take it out of circulation, keep it warm in a box, and take it to a wildlife rehab center where, if it could not be saved, it would be humanely euthanized. Although the siskin was slow, I missed catching it.

Today, I did not see the sick bird. It is probably dead. I’ve taken down the feeders. I gave away the bird food I had recently bought, sacks of sunflower seeds and Nyjer, blocks of suet. I am not sure I will ever use the feeders again.

I have been trying to do a drawing of the sick Pine Siskin, using as reference a photo I took before I realized it was sick. My attempts look flat and stiff. It’s as if I’ve forgotten everything I learned about drawing birds. The joy is gone. In the photo, the signs of impending death are obvious. I now know too much about this disease. Its fluffed-out feathers were a futile attempt to stay warm because it could no longer thermoregulate. Its messy beak was due to an inability to swallow. Its half-closed eyes confirmed the ebbing of life.

June 20, 2018

Alarm cheeps! Four newly hatched California Quail were wandering alone next to our garage. Marcia and the kids next door noticed them first. When we approached, they froze and quieted. One buried its head into the corner of the rock wall. If left out in the open, the chicks would be in danger of being killed by a cat, hawk, crow, Jay, or car.

We figured the parents must be nearby. They live within the bushes and bamboo hedges of a quadrant of houses, including ours. I see the covey occasionally in the yard, several blue males and about eight brown females. Is this a family or a harem? We placed the babies underneath a shrub and stood to the side to see what would happen. The quail adults came out immediately from a bush just ten feet away and sounded the urgent cry, Ooo-OOO-oo! Ooo-OOOO-ooo! Kidnappers have stolen our children! Soon four fluffballs raced out and joined their parents and a dozen other siblings. They moved quickly and smoothly together as a unit, as if on invisible roller skates.

I wonder how many of these chicks survive. Unlike other birds, they are born capable of walking with those humongous feet, and they can peck the ground and forage. But they are still utterly defenseless. They cannot fly. Even adult quail are vulnerable because they are relatively slow fliers, no match against a hawk. Their best defense is subterfuge: to go under bushes and pretend to be inanimate objects. Babies, like the wandering four, are probably born with this instinct to freeze in place.

A quail’s cry is always a message of great urgency. When I put millet on the bathroom ledge and flagstone, I imitate the alarm cry, “Ooo-OOO-oo! Ooo-OOOO-ooo!” It means they better hurry on over and eat up the millet before the Scrub Jay gets to it first. I don’t tell them I will put out more if it does.

August 18, 2018

I am pleased to see that my backyard has become a menagerie of fledglings—baby Juncos, finches, and Scrub Jays—all learning to fly. Their goal is to land onto the patio cage feeders at an angle that enables them to enter via one of the 1 ½–inch grid openings. We’re at baby steps. And some fledglings are slower learners than others. They hang on to the feeder. And to enter, they must swing up or let go to grab the grid bars closer to the top. A few remain stuck and cry for help.

Today, on the back porch, an adult Scrub Jay returned to its disconsolate baby sitting on the rail. It popped a seed into the crying baby’s open mouth. They flew off together. She later brought it back to the feeder for another lesson. But the fledge balked and jumped down and ate fallen seeds on the ground instead. The adult flew off. Alone, the young bird walked upright to inspect the porch. It surprised me when it launched itself onto the feeder. Where’s Mom? She should see this. Unfortunately, it remained hanging on to the bottom of the feeder, its tail tucked under, a position that made it unlikely it could hoist itself up. It was bug-eyed as it stared at the seeds so tantalizingly close. After fifteen seconds, it dropped off the feeder and made do with a few chips it managed to knock loose. I saw the baby jay an hour later, still trying to launch onto the feeder. It already shows a key trait of a very smart Scrub Jay. Persistence.

November 10, 2018

When I knew almost nothing about birds, I bought red hummingbird nectar in a bottle and a fancy handblown glass globe with a rubber stopper and spigot. I hung this on a shepherd’s hook in an open area of the front yard. I never saw a hummingbird. I left the fancy feeder there, forgotten, for months. I later learned that feeders must be changed every few days, lest the nectar mold. The mold in my feeder was welded to the sides. The rubber spigot and stopper had cracked into pieces from being out in the sun. I also learned that store-bought red nectar is nothing more than water, sugar, red dye, and a waste of money. Better to make fresh nectar—one part white cane sugar to four parts boiling water. Skip the dye. Throw out the first batch of nectar I made with organic sugar. It’s not better. It’s bad for them. How many hummingbirds did I kill before I knew better? I trashed the fancy glass feeder and later the charming replacements that were a pain in the ass to clean. I dumped feeders with metal bottoms that rusted.

I now have six acrylic feeders with clear bottoms and red lids. They’re antithetical to the natural garden effect I wanted to create. I placed them in different areas of the patio, veranda, and back office porch. This afternoon I saw an Anna’s Hummingbird approach one. Its head looked black until it turned toward light, and it instantly blazed iridescent red and pink. Reflected glory. It was a male. The females are a very classy subtle green with a few red spots at the throat. While aloft in a holding pattern, the male hummingbird did a quick surveillance of his surroundings, rotating his body and head in all directions to determine if competitors were nearby. Would he be the one who would chase or be chased? He delicately alighted on the feeder, wings still fluttering as his feet clasped onto the bar.

I’ve examined those tiny feet when hummingbirds land on the palm of my hand to drink from a tiny feeder. Short legs, tiny feet, and teeny-tiny toes and talons. They cannot hop, walk, scratch at dirt, or clutch food like other birds. Their toes can, however, grasp a wire, a spaghetti-size twig, or the thin perch of a nectar feeder. And in battle with a competitor, they will aim those feet as a weapon. Are their feet that dangerous? Their talons on my palm feel scratchy, not lethal. Today I discovered something else hummingbirds can do with their feet. A male hummingbird was chasing another, a female. The chase was leisurely, fond pursuit and not a chase. Season-wise, it seems late—or early—for courtship. Then again, I read hummingbirds can mate up to three or even four times a year. When the female landed on the limb of the oak tree, the male landed about two feet away and moved toward her. He was sliding on his feet, half an inch, half an inch, half an inch. When he was within ten inches, the female flew away. I swear he had the look of a jilted lover in disbelief. Was that indeed a courtship maneuver? Why didn’t he land closer to the female from the start? Many animals draw closer to another to either gain affection or kill. Human teenagers in my day did that to flirt in a movie theater. Oops, is that your leg? I was just reaching for more popcorn. I read that among hummingbirds mating occurs when a female splays herself on a branch. So maybe this male was hoping the female would turn the branch into a nuptial bower right then and there. Sorry, bud.

The more I observe, the more I realize that every part of a bird and every behavior has a specific purpose, a reason, and an individual meaning. Instinct does not account for everything that is fascinating.


From The Backyard Bird Chronicles, forthcoming from Knopf this April.

Amy Tan is the author of several novels, including The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter’s Daughter. She is a coproducer and coscreenwriter of the film version of The Joy Luck Club and is on the board of American Bird Conservancy. She lives in Sausalito, California.