|A repurposed fire pit filled with a seed mix meant to attract songbirds, inadvertently turned into a sandhill crane feeding station|
March 18, 2013
It began innocently enough.
I rescued an abandoned fire pit from the curbside. It was trash day, someone threw out an inexpensive three-legged metal stand with a solid bowl and mesh cover for containing sparks. Although I had no need for a fire pit, it seemed senseless to let a perfectly reusable object take up valuable landfill space. I pulled over and put it in my car. At the time, I had no particular plan in mind but I knew an idea would come to me eventually.
By removing the solid bowl and using only the mesh top placed upon the tripod base facing upward, the fire put turned into a bird feeder. Although subject to rain, the screening provided drainage to prevent seeds from getting wet and moldy. Standing about two feet off the ground, the bowl-shaped screen was broad enough for several birds to feed at once. I envisioned a flutter of finches, cardinals and doves taking advantage of their new feeding station so I set up the stand and sprinkled a generous helping of wild birdseed mix into the concave holder.
Within a couple days, a few songbirds stopped by but it mainly attracted squirrels. The rodents must have been thrilled with such easy access to food. I had positioned the feeder about 20-feet away from the kitchen window on top of a grassless circle where a camphor tree once stood in the hope scattered seeds would soon sprout, turning the bare ground into a garden of sunflowers, safflowers, millet and corn stalks.
What I didn’t anticipate was a pair of unexpected visitors.
The other day as I was finishing breakfast, two sandhill cranes meandered into the yard. Although they don’t visit daily, the cranes stroll by often enough to feel like regular members of our wildlife community. Sandhill cranes mate for life with a lifespan of up to 25 years. They also tend to return to where they were raised. During dry seasons, cranes have nested on grassy islands in our lake and ever since, whenever I see them, I wonder if they are the same pair that nested here in the past.
That’s what I was thinking the other morning as the tall birds strolled into the yard. I expected them to poke around the ground hunting for bugs as they usually do. Sandhill cranes eat grubs, worms, mole crickets and other insects as well as seeds, nuts, fruit and berries. Their long pointy bills are perfect for underground foraging. I soon found out their beaks are quite adept other things too.
I watched as the duo made a beeline for the birdfeeder.
To be entirely accurate, although both birds hightailed to the repurposed fire pit, only one of them actually partook of the seed-strewn smorgasbord. Was it the male, I wondered, or the female? Since I’m a woman, I assumed the crane manically pecking seeds was the female packing away calories in preparation for egg laying. Or, less altruistically, she (or he?) could just have been greedy and selfish. Whichever bird it was, the crane appeared even more thrilled by its discovery of this unexpected banquet than the squirrels had been.
It was at that point I realized I was committing a crime.
In Florida, it is against the law to feed bears, alligators, foxes, raccoons, scrubjays and sandhill cranes. As stated on the state’s “MyFlorida.com” website, “Feeding of listed species is prohibited because it can negatively alter feeding behavior in some species and can cause them to become accustomed to people.”
Even without the website’s warning, I knew it was wrong to set up a self-serve cafeteria for the red-capped birds. Yet, as I sat in the kitchen watching their antics, my excitement soared. At one point, the more subservient male (female?) attempted to sample the bounty but that’s as far as he/she got. As soon as the less aggressive bird bent its long neck down, the more dominant one shoved it aside with a quick sweep of its beak and a fluffing of feathers. That’s all it took to remind the male (female?) to stay away. From then on the alpha bird ate (peck after greedy peck) while its partner stood stalwartly by patiently awaiting whatever dregs might remain.
It only took one day for the sandhill cranes to become birdseed junkies. Unfortunately, it took the same amount of time for me to become equally addicted to observing their feeding habits. Fortunately, my own stalwart partner brought me back to my senses.
“You’ve got to stop feeding them,” Ralph insisted as I peered out the window with camera in hand. “Pretty soon they’re going to start pecking at the window. They’ll tear the screen and besides, they probably shouldn’t be eating that much seed.”
I don’t know if he’s right about the seeds but he’s spot on about potential destruction. Sandhill cranes are bold, not easily intimidated and fast learners. On Day 2, after eating every seed in the feeder as well as those that had fallen on the ground, the two birds approached the kitchen window with a demanding glare in their eyes.
“Well,” they seemed to say, “Where is it? We ate what you gave us and WE WANT MORE!”
As much as wanted to give in. I turned away. I haven’t taken the feeder away yet. But I haven’t refilled it either.