From the May 22, 1992 Just a Thought column by Arthur Railton:

I watch birds. But I’m not a bird watcher. Bird watchers don’t watch birds, they go birding, looking for rare birds. They don’t mess with backyard birds that I watch. Most keep a record of every species they’ve seen. It’s their Life List. They travel miles, sit motionless for hours, staring through binoculars, to get a glimpse of a rare species, a bird they can add to their list. Once they’ve spotted a bird, they lose interest in it. As Spiro Agnew said, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

But that’s not my kind of bird watching. I just watch birds, ordinary birds, and they’ve taught me a lot.

Of course, to have birds to watch you must feed them. They’re too smart to give you all that pleasure for nothing. That puts you in the market for bird feeders, of which there are more varieties than there are bird species. Some folks keep Life Lists of the bird feeders they have owned in the search for the perfect design. Their garages are filled with feeders that just didn’t pass the test.

Bird feeders are best for feeding squirrels. That’s why nobody sells squirrel feeders. There’s no need to, bird feeders do the job perfectly.

But let’s get back to bird watching.

You can learn a lot watching birds. Their way of life is worth copying. Long ago, they broke through the color barriers that torment humans. Theirs is a color-blind society. There’s no violence at the feeder. Yellow or red, brown or purple, gray or black, all get a fair shake, sooner or later. To be sure, the big birds get more. And why not? They need more. But they don’t bully the little ones. They just take enough to fill their bellies and fly off. They don’t flaunt their size, don’t insist they’re Number One. Don’t try to police the bird world. They just take what they need and fly off. There’s a lesson here someplace.

Some birds, like the chickadee, are prim and dainty, like little girls used to be. Some, like the gold-fish, are as colorful as a spring yard filled with daffodils and forsythia. Others, like the starling, are noisy slobs, like football fans on TV. You see folks you know in the birds at your feeder.

Catbirds are as well tailored as a dinner jacket, but they’re demanding as a shrew. Give one a raisin and he wants the whole box. More, more, he screeches. Suddenly you’re his lackey, and you love it.

Bluejays are even noisier than catbirds. Folks don’t like bluejays because they don’t know their place. And they don’t sing, they squawk. They’re handsome, but a bit too flashy, with too much get-up-and-go, too much gumption. We don’t like that in birds. In people, it’s okay. Maybe even in presidents. Look at Ross Perot. But not in birds.

Cardinals, everybody likes cardinals. They know their place. You’ll never see a cardinal pushing to the head of the line, acting like he knows it all, demanding attention, squawking for raisins. They’re colorful, impeccably groomed and regal. They exude class. If birds elected popes, they would certainly elevate the cardinal. But, like catbirds and bluejays, they can’t sing. High in the trees, they emit an annoying non-musical whistle, like a hotel doorman calling a taxi. But at the feeders they’re quiet, like a well-trained child: seen and not heard.

Easiest to live with is the chickadee. She darts to the feeder, grabs a seed and flits away to eat it. The original takeout eater. Back and forth she goes, one mouthful at a time. Quiet, efficient and aloof, that’s the chickadee. She’s hard to get to know.

A favorite of mine is the mourning dove, the dowager queen of the feeding station. Doves always look so satisfied, so well fed, so superior, as they flounce about under the feeder, heads bobbing as they strut. Pecking, pecking, pecking. They act like they’re very much in charge, although, like all queens, they’re not. They act silly only at mating time and then just the male loses his dignity. He chases the female around, lusting after her, gently pecking on her neck. All the while the Queen maintains her dignity. She’s having none of it. The whole messy business of romance is not for her. While he puffs and postures, she keeps eating. A real queen.

Uninvolved in all the feeding frenzy are the robins. Bird feeders are not their cup of tea. They have their own restaurant, the lawn. Nobody yet has developed a bird feeder that you fill with worms. It will come, you can bet.

My brother-in-law has one of those high tech bird feeders. You set a dial and any bird that weighs more than the setting is shut out. A cover drops over the seed when the heavy bird lands on the feeder. He set it to keep out the bluejay. Or so he thought. But within a couple of days, the bluejay figured out how to beat the system. The cover wouldn’t close if he kept his weight close to the pivot. How long did it take Archimedes to discover the law of the lever? This bluejay figured it out in a couple of days! And we have the gall to call dim-witted humans “bird-brained.”

Compiled by Alison Mead