Sitting out back with a friend the other day, I began to tell her stories about the animals that were darting in and about the apple tree limbs. It was a glorious morning, and the sunlight filtered on to the branches and leaves, creating shadows that the birds and squirrels danced upon. I'd been paying close attention to this activity since early spring, and was happy to talk about the clientele at Randy's Backyard Cafe.
I have three hummingbird feeders. One is guarded carefully by an aggressive male, his ruby throat brilliant in the sun. That feeder is the most popular of the three, for some reason. This male also tries to chase hummingbirds from the other two feeders, but occasionally a pair will team up to distract him, so that a youngster will get his or her moment of nectar rush without being dive-bombed.
These feeders provide watchers with a lot of entertainment, far more interesting than most television shows. Hummingbirds are dramatic, talented, fast and fascinating. They are beautiful and seem to enjoy the action of guarding and chasing and protecting their territory, no matter how artificially created it is. We watch their winged battles daily and love the excitement.
Gray squirrels eat seeds near bird feeders.
(Photo — Randy Lewis)
This year I decided to keep one or two traditional bird feeders up as well. I bring them in at night so the bears and raccoons will not destroy them. But during the day, several families of birds come by to dine at this welcome cafe, including three families of blue jays being raised here this summer. They are loud and raucous, and the youngsters are quite demanding. In the early morning, all three groups are noisily crying for attention right outside our windows, with the well-nurtured parents waiting for some sunflower seeds to shut up the hungry hordes.
Last year only one family of blue jays grew up here. In that family was a single dark grackle, being raised as a blue jay, a result of having its egg laid in the adoptive parents' nest. All season long we watched that grackle learn how to be a blue jay. It was fascinating. This year, a grackle family is being raised in our backyard, right alongside its adoptive family of jays. A second generation is moving in, learning the ropes, right in front of our eyes. Do I know for certain this is the same bird? No. But I'm guessing it is.
Doves and finches
Other families are being raised here as well. A much quieter family of mourning doves is growing its skill set out back. We watched a big flock of mourning doves all winter long, waiting in the trees every day for the more gregarious birds to finish up and allow them their peaceful munching. I'm guessing this quiet family is another second generation being raised by a cooing pair who enjoyed spending winter right here with us.
Beautiful purple finches are growing up out back as well. We fed a small flock of them over the winter, and I'm guessing a few stayed on to carry on the family tradition of dining here on Keese Mills Road, the splendid table by the river, under the apple trees.
My favorite wild mammals are also visiting every day, a second or third generation of gray squirrels spending the summer figuring out how to survive in the Adirondacks. Each winter I feed about four or five large and cheerful squirrels. I can tell some of them by distinguishing characteristics and find their familiarity to be quite entertaining. They enjoy the sunflower seeds and are particularly fond of the peanuts I put in their "nut house" every morning. This summer there are six small gray squirrels coming by for morning treats. They are definitely juveniles, looking like miniatures, startled by how big the world is. One by one, they are learning how to open the top of the nut house to retrieve the peanuts. A watcher can feel their excitement as they grasp their treasure, put it in their mouths and then try to figure out what to do with what they've found. There are no adults in this picture.
The adults come by later in the afternoon. Some show the signs of having traveled a long way; others show the signs of raising young: females with mammary glands full, males with a fierceness in their demeanor. They grab the peanuts quickly. They come back a few times, eat some sunflower seeds, then grab one more peanut before heading back to the nest. I recognize some of these squirrels from last winter. They are my old friends. They have sent their young to the diner, and I've done my part to keep those treats available both to them and their offspring.
My friend and I reflected on our own children. We talked about raising young Adirondackers, showing them the ropes, taking them up mountains and out on rivers and ponds in canoes. We supported their artistic endeavors and their athletic endeavors. We helped them weave their own history into these forests and mountains. We taught them how to dress for the weather and how to drive on slippery roads. We imparted what we felt we must.
We talked about how what we do with the kids when they are young stays with them. When they come home for visits, their ingrained heritage comes forward, comfortably. This next generation of Adirondacker wants to climb a mountain or jump in a lake or in winter, grab some snowshoes for a trek across a flat, white pond. They have a part of themselves that feels natural loading a woodstove or shoveling a driveway, or wading in the river on a hot day. We pass along the pieces of Adirondack living to the next generation as much as the blue jays and squirrels do. There is universal wisdom offered just by living so close to the life inside this natural wonderland. We are all a part of keeping the circle unbroken, the passing along of wisdom and survival in a place others may call harsh but we call home.
Randy Lewis lives in Paul Smiths and is the author of "Actively Adirondack: Reflections of Mountain Life in the 21st Century," Adirondack Center for Writing's People's Choice Award for Best Book, 2007.