Can bird watchers be impartial? Are they capable of turning the same kindly eyes upon all species? Does each feathered visitor get the same welcome at their winter feeding stations? This ethical question is now being asked by bird fanciers in the northern reaches of Pennsylvania's Bucks County, and I am afraid that, in a surprising number of cases, the answer is—no.
The specter of partiality stalks this pleasant countryside as a direct result of an unprecedented invasion of mockingbirds. Upon first being identified in local yards this fabled songster of the Southland is greeted with enthusiasm. How nice to have mockingbirds added to the list of winter visitors! Will they sing in spring? Do you think they'll stay? What if they nest? Much early affection is lavished upon these jaunty birds in gray.
Then the mocker descends upon the feeding station. He not only descends upon the station, but he also descends upon the regular winter birds that flock around it. Chickadees, juncos, tufted titmice and little downy woodpeckers are put to rout. The welcomed visitor becomes a feathered juggernaut bearing down on the tails of the regulars as they put for the tall timber. They sneak back to snip at the suet, but the invader seems to be everywhere. No longer is there peace in the garden.
At this point the human provider changes his tune. The owner of the feeding station switches from terms of admiration to explosive invective. Take, for example, the case of my neighbor John B. Hulburd.
March 7, 1960
When the first mocker showed up in Jack's yard he was tickled pink. He had me rush over to help make sure of the identification. It was a mockingbird all right—a gray bird, the shape and size of a catbird, and with white in its wings and tail.
Jack already had been cheered by those visitors from the far north, the evening grosbeaks. "Think of having evening grosbeaks and mockingbirds in the yard at the same time," he exulted. "Do you think he'll stay?"
The next time I saw him it was a different Jack. He roared into my living room with hardly a hello.
SUCH WORDS FOR BIRDS!
"You and your blankety-blank mockingbird," he shouted. "He's chasing all the other birds away from the feeding station. I'll—." He continued. I've never heard such words for birds. But Jack is a man who thinks for himself. He is an airplane pilot, and bird watching is just his hobby. Nothing would make a mockery of his feeding station. In this crisis he thought out a plan.
Carefully selecting a site just south of the guest house, he put up another feeding station, stocking it with raisins and other tidbits calculated to soothe the mockingbird gullet. Now a semblance of order has been restored. There are three mockingbirds in his yard, but they hang out around the new station while the regulars have returned to the old lunch counter on the other side of the house. The invaders still make occasional raids, but for the most part they linger in their newly designated territory. Even so, it is an uneasy truce.
No such truce has been attained in the yard of Mrs. E. Taylor Pierce, an ardent bird student whose home is not far from Elephant, or The Elephant, as this Buck's County crossroads is more familiarly known. When a mockingbird started dive-bombing her feeding stations Mrs. Pierce went into action. First she wrote to the National Wildlife Federation, Washington, D.C. They went into consultation with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Mrs. Pierce received a letter from the Federation saying: "The law enforcement section of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advised us the best course of action in regards to your troublesome mockingbird is to contact a local game warden or conservation officer. He is the person to contact to obtain a permit to remove the bird and may be able to give direct assistance in this action."
Although the anti-mockingbird feelings of Mrs. Pierce had reached the boiling point, she is too fond of birds in general to wish the mocker real harm.
"All I wanted was to get him out of here," she said. She got in touch with her district game warden who came, watched the mockingbird and then gave permission to trap it for removal to some distant point.
"The mockingbird performed while he was here," Mrs. Pierce said. Later the warden showed up with a rabbit trap which was set on the terrace, festooned with boughs and baited inside and out with suet and peanut butter.
"All this with the mocker eying me," she said. The bird must have eyed her actions carefully, for it ate the bait on top of the trap but never went inside. The next day she removed the trap and leaned it up against the terrace. On the following day the warden came and took the trap away.
A COMPLAINT WAS LODGED
"I was busy and didn't talk to him," she said. But that night she said he telephoned her house and left word that a complaint had been lodged against her on charges of illegal trapping of wild birds.
"I promptly burst into tears," said Mrs. Pierce sardonically. The warden, himself a conspirator, was in no mood to press the charge, preferring to ignore the whole affair.
Mrs. Pierce, however, refused to give up. At one point she got a neighbor's boy to shoot off a gun in the yard in the hopes it might scare the-invader. Four shots were fired. At the first two the mocker flew away a short distance but returned.
"The next two only hurt my ears, and the mocker just sat and sneered," Mrs. Pierce said. "And I'm ashamed to say that I tried to turn the hose on him the other day."
Mrs. Pierce's neighbors are strongly divided on the mockingbird issue. Some have advised her to shoot it and be done with the whole thing. At the other extreme are those who refer to it as "our mocky" and disapprove of counteraction.
"So this blankety-blank bird not only keeps the birds from feeding but has upset what little community spirit existed," reads my latest communication from Mrs. Pierce. "Taylor says to put up a sign 'Rebel Go Home,' but being part Rebel myself I'm saving this as a last resort."
Meanwhile Mrs. Pierce keeps moving the feeding trays around the yard in hopes of outwitting the mocker, but there seems to be no respite. Other invaders are regarded with varying indignation. Mrs. Hulburd says a mocker sits in a maple tree outside her piano teacher's window and interrupts the lesson with raucous mimicry. Mrs. Charles Rudy, wife of the noted sculptor, is taking it more calmly, although she recently found a nest in a thick bush which she thinks may have been built by mockingbirds last summer.
Mockingbirds show up on occasion in the North, even as far north as Maine, but in Pennsylvania the southern songsters seem to be increasing rapidly. It is not unusual to see one fly across the road.
No neighbor knows where it all will end. One hope is that when the catbirds return in the spring they will chase the mockers away. They are a closely related species, and competitive. Last spring a mocker appeared in my yard but was chased off by resident catbirds. There is one other hope which the bird feeders are entertaining. My friend T. Donald Carter, who lives over near Boonton, N.J., reports that some 15 years ago mockingbirds showed up in that section in fair numbers. They seemed to be increasing, but then a mean, tight winter came along and the mockers all disappeared. Apparently they went back where they came from.
These advices have been taken into consideration by those involved in the current invasion-. Nobody dreams of a harsh winter, but there is a growing feeling among bird people that if a long, cold winter will end this bitter controversy involving both birds and people—let it come. Up to now this winter has been mild and pleasant, except for this ugly bird business.