When I was a lad we always had a birdfeeder outside the kitchen window. On cold winter mornings, especially after a snow, we could spend hours lingering over cornflakes and tea while riots broke out three feet from the table.
The sparrows were first, arriving in great armies, scratching purposefully with their feet at the handfuls of millet we tossed on the porch floor. Chickadees and nuthatches dashed back and forth from the maples to the wooden feeder where he kept a mostly-sunflower mix.
We had our share of grackels and starlings, which we'd have gladly done without, and thre were daily rapacious visits by the local squirrels, who got so accustomed to our beating on the windows that it took a good swat with a broom to chase them off.
The cat would prowl along the window sill, every muscle tensed. From time to time she'd make a strange clicking sound with her mouth, as if she were cracking hollow, dainty bird bones between her teeth.
The ham of our show was the bluejay, who flashed in shrieking from the bare dogwood and commandeered the feeder, menacing any little birds that ventured in.
And our most regal visitor was the cardinal, uncommon in Long Island's cold climate. The bright red male and his muted mate arrived only in the severest weather, not wishing to risk public appearances when private meals could be found.
When the cardinals visited we would fall still and silent, as if in the presence of some rare missionaries. We were sure any motion would scare them off. We would whisper to each other through clenched teeth, "Where's the damn cat?"
The most awesome bird-feeding experience I've encountered was in northern Manltoba in the deep of winter, when the air outside was dead calm and 35 degrees below zero. My host had a Thermopane picture window that looked out on a landscape utterly barren, empty and pale white.
Except that just outside the window he'd put up a feeder that filled it with millet. There were grosbeaks there literally by the hundreds, brightly colored, flapping and feeding so furiously it was hard to separate one from another. It was as if someone had thrown a gallon of black-and-yellow paint onto a fan blade and turned on the juice.
The people at the Audubon Naturalist Society say now is the time for Washingtonians to start stocking up on seed and putting out their feeders. Just this moment birds have tons to eat, with weeds and seeds in the height of their flowering. But first frost is imminent, and the day after the freeze is the day birds start needing people.
One of the better places to find out about feeds and feeders is the Audubon Book Store at Wisconsin and Q Streets Northwest, where there's a display of all sorts of ultramodern equipment and all the books you'll need to recognize your visitors.
I stopped by the other day and chatted with Boonie Gallagher and Margot Wegner, who told me more in an hour than I'll ever be able to remember. A few facts and theories stuck. One is Gallagher's warning that once one starts feeding birds, he'd better not stop until spring arrives.
"Once they're in the pattern of using a feeder the birds depend on that food and they will die if they don't get it," she said. "If you go away for a winter vacation or just a weekend, make sure you get the neighbors to pick up your newspaper and fill the feeder. I can't stress this enough."
Another warning: Birds need water in winter just as much as they need food. If there's a hard freeze they'll die without it. Gallagher puts out an upturned garbage can cover and fills it with boiling water every morning. She does it three or four times a day when the weather's worst. There are more types of birdfeeders available these days than anyone or any bird will ever need. A wide sampling is on display at the store.
Feeders are nice, but many desirable birds favor feeding off the ground, anyway. Gallagher said the best food for sparrows, towhees, cardinals, juncos, doves and other scratchers is a standard mix of millet, sunflowers, cracked corn, wheat the whatever other small grain is around, simply sprinkled on a clear bare space on the ground.
Suet, sunflower and thistle are favorites of the nuthatches and chickadees and titmice. To keep raccoons and starlings and squirrels out, a variety of complicated feeders is available. Or yor can go out and swat them with the broom, as I did years ago.
Mockingbirds love fruit - cut up apples and oranges, currants and raisins - along with bread crumbs. But Galalgher says watch out. Mockingbirds can take over and scare all the smaller birds away.
The Audubon Society's birdseed savings days, when feeders and feed are offered at cut rates, are Oct. 28 for members and Oct. 29 for nonmembers. Order forms are available from Audubon, 8940 Jones Mill Road, Washington, D.C. 20015, or call the bookstore at 337-6062. Orders must be placed by Oct. 14, so phoning or picking up order blanks at the bookstore or the Jones Mill Road headquarters might be best.