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'Biker' birds

The robins were back last week.

That may not sound like a big deal to you, but it certainly had the cardinals and house finches in a snit.

I'm not sure why our feathered neighbors were upset. It's not as if robins, strictly bug eaters as best I can tell, compete for the handouts at our feeder, although they do take over the birdbath and the fountain on our patio.

It dawned on me that the resident bird families look upon the red-breasted intruders in much the same light that Myrtle Beach residents view the bikers who descend on that resort community every year. In truth, the robins are pretty well behaved, although they do make a lot of noise, much like Harleys.

The robins mostly flock together, so to speak, with a lot of chirping and only an occasional squabble - the bird equivalent of a barroom brawl. I don't know what sets them off. It may be about who gets what spot at the watering hole.

Cardinals and house finches are way too smart to try to tell the bigger, more boisterous visitors to shove off, but they clearly are uneasy while supping at the feeder. They seem wary about turning their backs to the robins.

The chickadees stay on mission, no matter what's going on. Two work in tandem, with one flitting down and grabbing a sunflower seed and zipping out again, to be followed a few seconds later by its mate coming from the other side of the feeder. This pattern either is a clever strategy to keep bigger birds confused or a sign of a marital spat that leads Mr. And Mrs. Chickadee to prefer separate tables.

Despite our recent and ongoing drought -- or perhaps because of it -- we have been blessed by a profusion of brilliant red birds this summer. I haven't seen this many cardinals at one time since Pope Benedict's installation.

At one point, I counted no fewer than 11 cardinals lounging about the feeder, scavenging below or sitting on nearby benches and trellises. And I probably missed a few; the females are well camouflaged against the brown lawn. There were at least six males, however, each one more striking than the next.

Pronounced thump

Regretfully, I must report their number would have been greater by one had not a male flown into the breakfast room window recently.

Birds occasionally bump into our windows but generally regain their composure and fly off. In this case, the thump was pronounced, so I feared the worst. Sure enough, I found the hapless fellow, lying limp on the patio.

I put him in a box and placed it on top of the patio table, figuring that if he were merely stunned, this would prevent a passing cat from eating him for dinner. Alas, when I returned a few hours later, he was stiff. Cause of death? Broken neck.

In what way might I have been responsible, I wondered. The bird wouldn't have died if I hadn't provided food and water in close proximity to our windows. On the other hand, the cardinal explosion might not have occurred this summer were it not for our largesse.

One must be philosophical about such things.

Hawks devoured two of our mockingbirds this year, and while I mourned their demise, I had to admit they contributed to their fate by perching on the bench in the front yard for hours on end, like burghers in the town square. The hawks never seem to catch the chickadees; there's a moral in there somewhere.

Bill Rogers, the Bird Man of Winthrop University, whose wise counsel I often seek in such matters, told me he has noticed a bumper crop of cardinals in his yard, too.

When I expressed surprise that so many birds that fledged this summer were still around, he said they would disperse once the younger males became "sexually mature" and Papa chased them off.

"My wife doesn't like to talk about our birds in such explicit terms," I told him.

"How would she describe the maturation process?"

"We prefer to think that they have gone away to college."

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