Flocks of black-capped chickadees were swarming the alders in the front yard at daybreak, but it was hard to tell what the little omnivores were after.
Seeds of alder cones, maybe, or the eggs or larva of woolly alder aphids? Or, better yet, the spawn of the woolly alder sawfly, a nasty little invasive species that has caused the defoliation of alder thickets across Southcentral Alaska?
I sat and watched the chickadees flittering in the branches, and got to wondering about the weirdness of America's bird-feeding obsession that draws birds to most homes.
First, we move into natural avian habitat and cut down all the vegetation that provides food or shelter for birds.
Then we build big houses and surround them with even bigger yards given over mainly to grass, which is of no real value to any bird species except maybe geese and the occasional worm-hunting robin.
Finally, having done everything possible to drive native birds away, we try to bring birds back -- any birds, native or otherwise -- by baiting them with bird feeders.
And most people think this is cool.
"Share Your Love of Nature," the National Wildlife Federation proclaimed in a press release that arrived in my e-mail the other day. On opening it, there was this:
"What could be more fun than giving the children you love a truly special holiday gift -- one you know they'll enjoy -- one you feel good about giving? Kids love animals. Kids love getting mail. So, for wonderful holiday gifts with year-long fun and excitement, give the children on your list their own subscriptions to National Wildlife Federation's award-winning children's magazines -- Plus, get a FREE Birdfeeder Kit!"
Why is it that feeding animals is bad unless, and only unless, those animals are birds, more specifically songbirds?
Feeding ducks and geese is now even starting to be frowned upon, primarily because it concentrates birds. That makes them susceptible to disease. This was a concern when all anyone had to worry about was waterfowl dying from outbreaks of avian cholera, avian plague or avian botulism -- none of which are of any real threat to people.
Now, however, bird flu is in the news. It has been linked to human fatalities, and for that reason, there is even more concern than in the past about feeding migrating waterfowl. Encouraging waterfowl to concentrate in urban areas by offering food just might not be a very good idea. Thus some communities, and at least one state, have gone so far as to ban such feeding.
But when it comes to songbirds ... well, that is what one might call a bird of a different feather.
All of this probably wouldn't seem quite as confounding if, of course, people were really "doing it for the poor starving birds" as they like to claim. But let's face reality. There aren't that many people "doing it for the birds."
Mainly, they're doing it for themselves. They like to see the birds. It's easiest to see them at a bird feeder. So they feed birds.
You could do the same thing with bears, if not for that pesky state law banning the practice. But you could.
Dump enough salmon entrails in your yard almost anywhere in Anchorage, and the bears will come. Do this on a regular basis, and they will develop a habit of coming.
Voila -- you've got your own Bearfeeder. Invite the neighbors over to sit and watch the bears. Take some photographs. Entertain yourself.
It's what the bird feeders do.
Not that I really have anything against them.
There have even been some studies indicating bird feeders might actually be helping the birds. Yes, some birds are killed by predators in and around these feeding attractions, the studies found, but the number killed by predators is slightly outweighed by the number of birds aided in avoiding death by starvation.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on some very personal points of view.
I am not shy in admitting a personal preference for natural habitats over artificial ones. Rather than people feeding birds at feeders, I would prefer they undertake landscaping that supports not only birds but all other forms of wildlife.
I also recognize this is a minority view in our society. There seems to be some strange American love affair with lawns and mowing. Personally, I can't think of a much worse way to contribute to global warming than to putt-putt-putt around on a pollution-spewing lawn mower, but this is the American way.
We are a strange people.
Drilling the Arctic coastal plain, which truly is a frozen wasteland for a part of the year, to get gas for our lawn mower is a no-no.
Destroying huge acreages of natural habitat to create yards so can people can run motorized lawn mowers that spew greenhouse gases into the sky for no real reason but appearances is apparently just fine.
Shooting a wolf or a bear to save the life of a moose is a no-no.
Starving a whitetail deer to save an ornamental shrub is just fine, even if starvation tends to be a long, drawn-out, uncomfortable -- at least for the deer -- and inefficient process. It would, in fact, appear almost impossible to starve populations down to the size where they will leave yard greenery alone.
If deer get hungry enough they will pretty much ignore every deterrent short of fortifications to get a taste of possible food. This is why some communities Outside have taken to hiring professional gunners to come to town to execute deer.
Letting amateur wildlife assassins kills some wolves in Alaska is a no-no, even if it happens so far from nowhere no one will ever see.
Hiring professional wildlife assassins to take out beautiful, brown-eyed deer is apparently OK -- at least if done out of sight in the night by marksmen with night-vision scopes.
Wouldn't it be better if they were all treated like birds?
If we aerial-bombed wolf packs with the carcasses of Alaska road-killed moose, they wouldn't need to kill moose themselves. And if people put out big deer feeders full of the tastiest deer food, the deer would be so stuffed they wouldn't want to eat any greenery.
Granted, this wouldn't stop them from walking in front of cars and causing accidents, but that's really not the fault of the deer anyway.
That's usually the fault of drivers who aren't paying attention or are in a big hurry or both. Maybe they're distracted in the rush to get to that seat at the window from which they can watch all the birds at their bird feeder. Nature through clear glass is something of the preferred American view.
Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org