Tennis, badminton, squash and other racket games often feature adherents who are models of generosity. Gentlemen or ladies to the core, they quixotically call close decisions against themselves. In a match where they feel the umpire has ruled unfairly in their favor they give away the next point. For a long period of time these games were the world's leading examples of generosity gone hog-wild.
No more. The new leader, by a wide margin, is the activity that threatens to become our national pastime, if it isn't already—bird feeding. Merely to watch birds today stamps you as a deadbeat, taking pleasure in their beauty and their cute ways and giving nothing in return. Now, unless you're a cliff dweller in some crowded metropolis, you're expected to feed the little blighters; and even the city man is apt to be looked on askance if he doesn't do something for the pigeons. In the country, the suburbs or any area where there is even a solitary tree on the horizon, giving the birds free dinners is all but a universal custom. A Connecticut or Oregon yard without a bird feeder is, today, as rare as an Indiana one without a basketball backboard.
Feeders now come in all kinds of shapes—round, conical, cylindrical, square, rectangular. They are made of all kinds of metals, plastics and woods, colored in every conceivable hue. The old days of simply throwing bird seed on the ground are long since past. It is considered demeaning to make our feathered friends scrounge for food in that fashion—and dangerous, too.
In fact, safety is the byword in modern bird-feeder design. Feeders are raised above the ground in order to give the birds a good lookout perch against cats. Just to be on the safe side, most are equipped with some sort of baffle that a cat can't pass, or isn't supposed to, at any rate. These baffles are also—hopefully—squirrelproof. Although squirrels do not eat birds (to my knowledge), they do eat bird food, and in prodigious quantities if given a chance. Some bird feeders rely on a system of springs rather than baffles to lick the squirrel problem. If the squirrel climbs up the pole to where the feeder is, his weight causes a cover to come down over the feed compartment. By adjusting the spring at just the right tension, it is also possible—in theory, at any rate—to close the feeder against heavier birds, like blue jays and crows, albatrosses and rocs. By and large, the typical bird-feeding enthusiast seems to be an anti-heavy-bird man, his special loves being petite types like bluebirds, titmice and chickadees.
In referring previously to our feathered songsters as "little blighters" I gave, perhaps, the misleading impression that I am against bird feeding. On the contrary, I am a fairly recent convert to the sport, having purchased one of the spring-type, anti-cat-squirrel-and-big-bird feeders. Along with it I bought a large bag of assorted seed with which I filled the feeder. I then started watching and waiting for results. They were disappointingly slow in coming. Occasional birds lit on the feeder and pecked away at the provender, but the consumption was way below what it should have been as measured by what my numerous bird-feeding friends claim is par. I simply wasn't attracting business.
After a week or so I went to a feed store and told the man my problem.
"What kind of stuff are you feeding them?" he inquired.
"Oh, just general assorted, I guess you'd call it," I said.
He shook his head in kindly fashion. "They'll eat that in a pinch," he told me, "but what they really go for is sunflower seeds. With them it's like candy with children."
So I promptly bought some sunflower seeds, noting, as I counted my change that the stuff cost three times as much as the general mixture. I then filled the feeder and found out in short order that the salesman was right. Birds came from all over the county, fought savage battles to get at it and ate themselves into near stupefaction. This is where I made my initial discovery about bird feeding. The average songbird is like a seductive blonde, who expects the most expensive items on the menu and usually manages to get them.
I also discovered that the sport of bird feeding goes against all accepted theories of economics. The idea is simply to feed the birds more than your neighbor does. If your birds eat you out of 10 pounds of seed while Clark, next door, is a miserable five-pound man, you're in a higher echelon even though you've had to give up having the car washed. It's as though a golfer boasted that he'd succeeded in losing 11 balls in 18 holes for a new club record, or a skier was ecstatic because he'd cracked up four pairs of skis in a single season. Bird feeding is masochism at its most refined.
A really classic example of what it does for one is Folsom, one of my best friends. Recently he went away on a week's business trip, and when he returned his wife told him the birds had done him out of 14 pounds of seed—a new record. Folsom was overjoyed. To celebrate the happy event he stirred up a pitcher of martinis and took his wife out to dinner.
Do you get that? Overjoyed the man was. In seventh heaven. He hadn't had the pleasure of watching a single crimson cardinal peck away at a sunflower seed or a solitary cute chickadee dig his beak into a lump of suet. For all Folsom knew, his generosity might have contributed solely to drawing additional starlings to the neighborhood. No matter, Folsom could brag that he was outfeeding every rival in town, and that's all that counts.
To some this might seem like returning from a convention and letting out a whoop of joy on discovering that while you were gone Gina Lollobrigida had been to your house and enjoyed a champagne-and-pheasant dinner with your wife. But that's the way we Samaritans operate.
If I were to get another feeder and put it out by the wisteria trellis, I wonder if I wouldn't be able to give away more bird feed than Fuller does; I hear he's creeping up on me. I can always sell my tennis rackets and give up our membership in the beach club.
Hang the fun. It's the expense that counts.