Peterson: Critters first seems to be cardinal rule at feeders

All I want to see, really, are cardinals feasting at our birdfeeders.

For a while there, cardinals were feasting. A male and a female, mates, no doubt. And that made me happy.

But they haven’t been around for months.

I like to watch birds, but I’m not a bird-watcher. I don’t own a set of binoculars. I don’t have the time. And I don’t want to be snooping around in the woods for hours, squinting through binoculars to catch a glimpse of a bird, check the field guide, then guess what it might be and probably be wrong.

I want them to come to me, so I can look out the kitchen window and see who might be visiting today. I like yellow wrens and woodpeckers, but that’s hardly specific enough for bird-watchers. Lots of wrens are yellow. Just where were they yellow? And did they come in other shades? What about the beak?

Instead, what we get are mammals. Squirrels and chipmunks. Fat ones.

I used to be fond of chipmunks, the first wildlife that I remember seeing up close. I’m not counting squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, skunks, rats or birds in general. Those are suburban animals, kind of like animals you would find in an urban zoo with no fences. Not worth fencing in.

But the chipmunks were cute, the kind of animal you’d want for a pet. But you’d settle for a hamster because chipmunks were wild and not to be trusted or kept as a pet, there being a law against that. The chipmunks would scurry about, tails up, looking for food or trying to make a getaway from who knows what. They were fun to watch.

Until many years later when they found out we had food for them. All the food that was meant for birds.

Chipmunks can climb straight up poles, jump from bushes to baffles to bird feeders in a single bound. And they can spend a long time on a feeder, eating what they can, spreading the rest on the ground.

They came after the squirrels, who can climb up and over and around just about anything designed to stop them. And the squirrels love our bird feeders just as much as the chipmunks. Both have voracious appetites. But the food is not meant for them.

It’s meant for birds, cardinals preferably.

But ever since the mammals found their feeding troughs, most of the interesting birds have left.

Sparrows still come around, but they are sputzies, which is what my German-speaking grandmother called them dismissively. For birds, sputzies are about as boring as you can get.

My grandma had a flat feeder out for birds on her back porch, and she would leave them bread scraps. Hoping, no doubt, for an interesting bird. But she would be getting sputzies. And she would wave her hand at them.

I wasn’t quite sure what she expected. Because sparrows were the only birds we ever saw, not counting the robins, who don’t use bird feeders but hop on the ground, listening for worms. There were mourning doves, too, but we only heard them in the evening. It wasn’t until this year that I actually saw a pair. They come around in the late afternoon or evening and eat the bird seed that the chipmunks let fly.

At least, I think they are mourning doves. They look like fat, flattened pigeons, but come in a sputzie color that blends in with the ground. I’m OK with them. Especially their mournful song before nightfall.

But I want cardinals.

The northern cardinal is the Illinois state bird, after all. And any bird that puts on the red, making it a sure target, has a lot of pluck. Maybe it’s because I’m near-sighted, but I can see cardinals. I mean, they’re so red. How can you miss them? Their mates are much more subdued, but beautiful nonetheless.

I used to live in southeast Iowa, which is St. Louis Cardinal baseball country. The Redbirds play just down the Mississippi in Busch Stadium. And growing up, I had no time for them. Except for their mascot, the cardinal.

Then I moved to Illinois, where way too many people follow the pitiable Cubs, even if they lose more than 100 games a season. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I had a favorite National League team, the Cardinals, the Cubs’ archrival, who happen, Cubs fans, to be playing postseason baseball. Ha.

But this isn’t about the Cardinals. It’s about cardinals.

And they aren’t visiting the Petersons’ feeding station, which right now is loaded with black oil sunflower seeds.

And chipmunks, who may flock together, but they sure aren’t birds of a feather.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate, a freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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