Only local birds

PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown, via feeder cam

I live on a quiet little hill above a swamp at the end of a long dirt road in the woods. The nearest stoplight stands some 27 miles away. Out here, it’s easy to feel lonely. Or at least it seemed that way when we moved from town almost 20 years ago. Time, however, revealed that this neighborhood is bustling — just not with people.

We thought we built a single family home, but it’s actually a condo. A family of squirrels dwells under the front porch steps. That unit sees a lot of turnover. Rent is cheap, but we tend to be overbearing neighbors.

A ruffed grouse lives in the trees along our front yard. He struts through the yard looking for food. In the spring, he starts drumming on a log back there, hoping that a lady grouse digs his sick beats. If you’ve never heard the sound of a grouse drumming, it sounds like a failed attempt to start a homemade helicopter. Good luck, buddy. Just be yourself.

We’ve got lots of rodents out here: mice, shrews, voles, rabbits and beaver. Plenty of mustelids, too: Otters, skunks, martins, weasels and ermine. I can’t shake the memory of when someone brought a weasel to our elementary school. It pooped without breaking stride, leaving behind a dropping that was almost as long as the creature itself. I can only assume they’re doing this out my window as we speak.

But by far my favorite neighbors are the birds. When I moved out here, I could identify chickadees, crows and pileated woodpeckers. A few years ago, my son took an interest in nature and we started feeding the birds. I remember watching as “chickadees” broke into distinct species — white- and red-breasted nuthatches, waxwings and redpolls. Finches divided into legions of distinct little birds, and the “sparrows” that lived under our deck ended up being phoebes. After a while, these weren’t just birds, but birds I knew. Birds I could talk to.

Last year, I built an elaborate bird feeding station that successfully deterred squirrels and deer. It’s way too heavy and bears a few design flaws emblematic of my self-proclaimed “jazz carpentry.” Nevertheless, it’s kept a busy contingent of overwintering birds happy these last few months.

The thing I love most about feeding birds isn’t the birds nibbling at the seeds before flying away. Rather, it’s what you hear when you step outside. Even on a cold day, you hear dozens of birds chirping in the trees all the time. The feeder is just one part of their business. I’ve merely provided incentive for them to go about their normal lives in our little corner of the world.

I got a day-by-day bird calendar for Christmas last year. Each day, I see a new color photo of a North American bird. And while I admired the colors of the various tanagers and got a nice chuckle out of the bearded tit, the pages I enjoyed most were the locals. Like Buddy the Elf, I find myself yelling, “I know him; I KNOW him.”

An old friend told me if he ever showed interest in birding he would ask someone to shoot him in the head. He said this not when we were in college, but a few months ago after I started talking about birds. Why would people feed birds when squirrels were much more interesting? That was his position.

Perhaps you see it this way, too. I understand. But I’m not a person on a quest for bird sightings. Rather, I enjoy meeting local birds, such that the world around me makes a little more sense.

Now I look back on my years of writing about life in these woods and admire how much I’ve learned. It’s like that first day of college, trying to remember where all your classes are located. What’s that guy’s name? What’s a bibliography?

Then the thrum of routine sets in and you leave thinking you know it all. But did you know that bird in the tree looking in your dorm room window? She was there too, living a whole lifetime alongside your carefree youth.

Get to know your neighbors. You’ll never be lonely again.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, April 6, 2024 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Kathleen Marvin says

    Quite a wonderful post. I love your choice of lifestyle.

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