Oh, the things I do for science. I moved a kayak from my backyard last week. As I did, a hairy woodpecker flew into the suet feeder just 8 feet away. He glanced at me, decided I was inconsequential, and hammered a chunk loose.
“OK,” I said to myself. “If the woodpecker considers 8 feet a safe distance, how near can I approach before he gets nervous?” Slowly, I stepped closer. At 4 feet, he flinched, so there was my first data point. Now getting carried away by the experiment, I waited for a chickadee. I found that if I stood 6 feet from the feeder, the bird would come in freely. Three feet was too close.
Ah, but what if I stood close to the feeder, completely stationary? What if I stayed long enough for them to get used to me? Would the distances change? I certainly wasn’t fooling them. They knew I was alive and debatably sentient.
So the next morning, I dressed warmly, carried a book into the backyard and sat by the feeder to see what would happen if I remained virtually inert. I sat in the cold for 3 hours.
I set my chair 2 feet from the feeder. Too close. The chickadees would fly in, but veer off at the last second. I pushed back a foot, and the magic began. The chickadees and nuthatches considered this to be an acceptable distance, and they began to visit the feeder as I sat right there with them. At first, they complained a lot. Chickadees and nuthatches are notorious alarmists. As they got used to me, they quieted down.
The woodpeckers did likewise. A male hairy woodpecker came to the deck, saw me, and announced his annoyance with repeated alarm calls. When I didn’t respond — or even move — he gave up and went to the suet feeder above my head, just an arm’s length away. I was close enough to touch him, though if I moved, he’d fly to the nearest tree and wait for my behavior to improve. Then he’d come right back.
A few minutes later, a female hairy woodpecker came. Would the fairer sex be more demure? Nope. She sputtered a series or woodpecker obscenities, and then she also landed on the suet just above my head. After a few repeated visits, the woodpeckers stopped calling and just took me for granted. Later, a pair of downy woodpeckers did likewise. I was considered harmless.
It took the mourning doves a lot longer. A pair has been picking through the soil under the feeders lately, and they panicked at my every movement, for a while at least. Over the first hour, they would not even enter the yard. They waited in trees, hoping I would leave. By the second hour, they moved to within 16 feet, eyeing me constantly. By the third hour, we were old friends. They approached within four feet, foraging as they walked, though never taking one eye off me.
Social dynamics became apparent during the second hour. As the bolder birds visited the feeder in ever-increasing numbers, the timid birds noticed that nothing evil happened. They also approached and squabbled with each other more than they eyeballed me. I made my move. I shifted my chair to within 2 feet of the feeder.
A red-breasted nuthatch was late to the party. While the white-breasted nuthatches were still a little bit wary of my presence, the red-breasted nuthatch was thoroughly unconcerned. He came and went as he pleased. As often as not, when he carried a seed away from the feeder, he would buzz my ear as he flew behind me — the only bird that did. Yikes!
By the third hour, we were all used to each other. I set my chair within a foot of the feeder and even held my finger on the feeder to steady it. The birds were now ignoring me, even as their wings brushed my skin. I was merely scenery.
Likewise, the rodents accepted me. The chipmunks were brave from minute one, chasing each other right over my shoe tops. By the second hour, the red squirrels approached within touching distance. Even the gray squirrels, the largest yet most timid of the three, began to approach, despite being bullied by the other two.
Only the blue jays stood back. The previous day, they had mobbed the feeders with reckless abandon. With me present, they shied away completely. I feel a bit insulted.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.