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My Feathered Friends: Maintaining Everyday Backyard Relationships

Artists for Conservation

This morning I woke up to the ear piercing pulse of the Starship Enterprise's "red alert" alarm. Apparently I watched a lot of Star Trek during the formative years of Hoover's life. (Yeah, yeah, I'm a closet Trekky). Brad and I often wake up to the sounds of crows cawing, ambulance sirens screaming or the melodic song of a cardinal....all coming from the kitchen. The culprit is Hoover, our chatty, captive-raised, 20 year old Congo African Grey Parrot.

Having lived with birds as long as I can remember, starting with budgies as a child, birds are inextricably woven into the tapestry of my life. I can't remember a time when I wasn't fascinated by them. An inspirational encounter with a Carolina Wren one winter cemented a deepening relationship with wildlings; providing the foundation for the privileged career I now hold as an artist.

It was this Carolina Wren that taught me to recognize wild birds as individuals. Since then, I have hand-fed a variety of backyard birds ranging from jays, robins, nuthatches, chickadees and sparrows to woodpeckers. I pair the feeding with a verbal cue calling "hellooo" and the birds soon learn to respond to my voice. Through hand-feeding I am able to experience the bird both physically and relationally. Inevitably these individuals find their way into my paintings.

This desire for proximity, combined with an urge to care for the natural world, is one reason I was attracted to Galapagos as the subject for my recent AFC Flag Expedition. Munching contentedly on foliage giant tortoises lumbered towards me to sniff my bare legs; marine iguanas walked over my toes and dainty finches landed on my backpack. Comical birds, aptly named Blue-footed Boobies, crudely scratched their nests on the trails making it necessary to maneuver around them.

I have been intensely focused on my Galapagos body of work for the past two years. This climaxed with a solo show unveiling in October. During this whirlwind time it was important for me to maintain my long-term backyard relationships. My closest ‘friendships' are with a male Hairy Woodpecker and a male Downy Woodpecker. The latter is currently clinging to the suet feeder outside a south window on this snowy winter day. He is never too busy to stop by for the juicy live bugs I keep as treats. He shreds them to pieces between my pinched fingers and then licks off the residual bug juice. It is enthralling to have your fingers licked clean by the long pointy tongue of a woodpecker! The Missus is with him today but she prefers her bugs skewered by their wriggling bodies to the end of a long thin stick.

For now the traveling urge has left me and I feel strongly inclined to cocoon; to return to my foundation and spend the winter interacting with my feathered friends here at home. As wonderful as it is to travel this amazing world....there is still no place like home. I have to be careful not to take for granted the many blessings I have right here in my own backyard!

I decided to join Project FeederWatch this year. This is a joint program of Bird Studies Canada and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Each year thousands of "Citizen Scientists" contribute their bird observation skills to science by participating in surveys which track bird populations across North America. Essentially it is a way for many to turn their backyard hobby into research for conservation. Anyone with a feeder can participate! All you have to do is count the kinds and numbers of birds at your feeder over a 2-day period every week from November to March. You count for as long or as little as you like. Observations can be entered on line or on data forms.

The winter survey consists of choosing a portion of your yard that is easy to monitor, typically an area visible from inside your home. My viewing area is right outside our kitchen sliding doors. We live on two acres bordered by forest edge and farmer's fields. The neat thing about this project is that even if you live in an apartment in the city with a feeder on your balcony you can still contribute valuable information to bird research and conservation!

If I lived in the city I would undoubtedly be the crazy pigeon lady downtown! For that reason I sure do love living in the country where nobody but Hoover and the wildlings hear me hollering "hellooo..."!

Visit Kelly's AFC website.

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