October 2018

Vol. 46, No. 5

Musings from the Blind Birder: When Our Beloved Birds Are Not So Beloved

Martha Steele

At my mother's home in Vermont, we have raspberry and blueberry patches, as well as a modest garden where we attempt to grow about a dozen vegetables and fruits. Her house and gardens are within a five-acre area of open fields with shrubs and several apple trees, all surrounded by 115 acres of mixed hardwood and coniferous forest. As you might imagine, if you want a garden or fruit patches, you had better be prepared for more than a few visits from wildlife.

That wildlife includes our beloved birds, which, on occasion, are most certainly not beloved. My mother and her husband, until his death in 2003, cultivated gardens on this property for forty years, a practice that Bob and I are continuing under the supervision of my mother, now 93. Planting and cultivating a garden is hard but highly rewarding work. In the spring, we painstakingly place small seeds an inch or so deep in the soil spaced appropriately apart, then ensure that the seeds and young plants are sufficiently watered as they take hold. We constantly try to stay ahead of the weed game, never missing an opportunity, however short, to pull weeds whenever we are anywhere near the gardens.

Thus, especially in the days and weeks after planting the garden and as the plants start to emerge from the ground, I am not amused at seeing deer, bear, or other wildlife roaming in the garden that we have worked so hard to cultivate. You will not hear me say, "Oh, look at that beautiful deer chomping on our growing spinach and lettuce." Nor do I say, "Oh, well, the bear must have needed all the corn that he consumed overnight, so I guess it is okay that he destroyed our corn crop and we will have to wait for next year." No, indeed, we try to do what we can to protect the fruits of our labors from wildlife.

And the wildlife of which we speak most certainly includes birds. I nearly lost it this past spring when we put netting around our blueberry patch about one to two weeks before we predicted that the berries would start to ripen for picking. After completing the task in the afternoon, we discovered that evening six Blue Jays flapping frantically inside the enclosure, apparently easily gaining entrance but having no clue how to get out. After making an opening and shooing them out, we set about trying to figure out how they got in and shoring up the netting. Well, this went on for another two days, each time with us trying to shore up the netting only to come back an hour or more later and discover frantic Blue Jays unable to get out. This surprised us because the berries were not ripe, and usually we do not get problems until the food is ripe to eat. Still, their flapping knocked many unripe berries off the plants. Thus, in effect, even if they did not eat the berries, we lost part of the crop to them. Finally, we were able to seal everything and were able to harvest at least part of the crop.

For the rest of the summer, my mother was cursing every jay she saw, even as she could enjoy other birds, such as the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at the feeder or the Eastern Phoebe parents darting back and forth to feed young in a nest above our back door. Having been denied access to the blueberry patch, the jays took up residence on posts in and among our raspberry patch, which was also threatened by these birds. I would periodically go outside and clap my hands, yell at the jays, and ask them, "I wonder what Blue Jays taste like?" I doubt those words were much of a deterrent.

But jays are not the only avian culprits raiding gardens or fruit plants. Roving flocks of Cedar Waxwings can do a job on berry patches as well. Some years ago, my parents were about a day or two away from picking elderberries just about to ripen. When they went out to harvest them, they found all the berries gone, consumed by Cedar Waxwings over a matter of hours. Cedar Waxwings were also a major problem when my parents tried to cultivate strawberries, as the waxwings somehow managed to pick the berries through carefully placed netting. After only a couple of years, they gave up due to several factors, not the least of which was trying to protect their crop from marauding birds.

They also had memorable battles with American Crows. After carefully planting several rows of corn and seeing the beginning of stalks emerging from the seeds, they came out one morning only to discover very neat rows of small holes where the emerging stalks had been. The crows had dug up all the plants and that was it for the corn that year.

There are plenty of stories about birds and the damage they can do to crops. A commercial farmer growing strawberries about 10 miles from my mother's house was advertising for pickers as the harvest time neared. Then, overnight, approximately 50 Wild Turkeys descended onto the strawberry field and wiped his entire crop out for the year. This event, coupled with the previous loss of a crop due to a late frost, led the farmer to abandon any further attempt to grow strawberries commercially.

While electric fences are a common method to try to keep animals such as deer, bear, raccoon, or skunk out of gardens, they are not helpful when it comes to birds. So other methods, such as netting or flash tape, need to be tried with varying degrees of success. I must say, even with my deep passion and admiration for birds in general, I really am not happy, not happy at all, when they destroy something that I put a lot of work into and look forward to. After this summer, my appreciation of Blue Jays in particular has become much more subdued. Yes, they are beautiful birds, but, oh my goodness, are they trouble in the gardens and boisterous to boot!

Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington. Martha can be reached at

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