A cardinal visits the feeder in columnist John Kelly's back yard. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

“Where is that big, bald, beakless bird anyway? He’s late.”

The grackle sat atop a chain-link fence, gazing at the empty bird feeder. He was irritated — grackles always are — and he didn’t care who knew it. “C’mon, big, beakless bird,” he muttered. “C’mon already. I’m hungry.”

A cardinal looked up from the ground. He tilted his head back and forth, raised his red crest, then lowered it.

“You do know he’s not a bird, right?” said the cardinal to the grackle.

“What’s that?” said the grackle.

“No beak. No feathers. He’s not a bird.”

“Well, what is he then?” said the grackle. Then: “You know what? Don’t answer that. I don’t care what he is. All I care is that every day at 7 a.m. he puts the tasty sunflower seeds in the feeder and I have my breakfast. But today, it’s like 7:30, and there ain’t nothing.”

A purple finch flew from a holly tree and landed atop the bird feeder, which dangled from a wire attached to a pole. “Who says there’s nothing?” the finch said. It hopped its way down the green wire mesh that surrounded the plastic cylinder until its beak was level with one of the holes at the bottom. It pecked at the sludgy detritus that had accumulated there.

“Mmm,” the finch said. “Lovely seed down here. Mmm. Tasty.”

“Now see,” said the grackle. “I would never stoop to that. I have my dignity.”

There was a snort. The grackle looked over to see a goldfinch perched atop a patio chair.

“Something funny?” said the grackle.

“Yes,” said the goldfinch, who, in his bright yellow summer plumage, seemed to shine like a polished ingot. “It was when you claimed to have your dignity.”

“Why I oughta . . .”

“There he is! There he is!” the cardinal exclaimed, winging from the grass and into the safety of a tree branch above the feeder.

The back door of the house opened and a beakless, unshaven figure in sweatpants and a ­­­T-shirt emerged. He held an empty plastic milk jug in his hand. He tossed it into a blue recycling bin, then went back inside, closing the door behind him.

The grackle erupted in a stream of gravelly invective. “Son of a finch!”

“Where’d he go?” said the cardinal.

There was a low, mournful sound as a plump, gray bird landed near the bird feeder pole and started pivoting in confused circles. “Oh! Oh! Woe is me!” she said. “Where is my love? Am I destined to be alone forever?”

Suddenly another plump, gray bird landed by her side and began weeping. “Oh my darling,” he sobbed. “I missed you so much.”

The two birds began waddling around one another, trading melancholy coos.

“You mourning doves are so pathetic,” sniffed the goldfinch.

“Get a branch, you two,” said the grackle.

“Here he comes again,” said the cardinal.

The back door opened and the man came out. He held something in his hands.

“What’s he got?” said the grackle. “I can’t see. Is it the sunflower seeds?”

But instead of walking toward the bird feeder, the man turned left and ambled toward another pole that was stuck in a flower bed. He fiddled with a metal cage at the top, then stood back to survey his work. Wiping his hands, he walked back inside.

“Ugh,” said the goldfinch. “Suet. So fatty. A minute on the beak, a lifetime on the cheeks.”

“Oh, and God forbid you should lose your girlish figure,” said the grackle.

“I’m choosing to ignore you,” said the goldfinch.

Suet!” screamed a large bird as it flashed past the grackle and goldfinch. It landed on the suet feeder, grasped it with its large, gnarled claws and began bashing at it with its beak. Its pterodactyl head was covered in red, white and black feathers. It was a pileated woodpecker.

“I don’t mind telling you, that guy looks freaky,” said the grackle.

“For once, we are in agreement,” said the goldfinch.

More birds had gathered. There was a titmouse in an oak tree and a chickadee on a fence post. A Carolina wren warbled from a woodpile. In the yard was a phalanx of sparrows, hopping forward like locusts.

“Guys, guys,” said the cardinal. “After he fills the feeder we should take turns. There are four holes. Four birds at a time. Ten seconds per bird. Orderly. What do you say?”

“There he is!” said the grackle.

The man approached, a bag of hulled sunflower seeds in one hand. He lifted the feeder from the pole, unscrewed the top and poured from the bag. He replaced the feeder and walked inside.

“Every bird for himself!” the grackle screamed as the feathered hordes descended and starting pecking at the holes.

Just then there was a coughing sound from the ground.

“Ahem,” came a voice from below. “Thanks for keeping an eye on things, boys. We’ll take it from here. Feel free to come back when we’re full, though I can’t promise there’ll be anything left.”

There were three of them, no, four. Squirrels. Why did it have to be squirrels?

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.