A love affair with birds

I don’t know who started it, but I belong to a family of birders. Compared to a truly avid birder, we aren’t, but compared to the folks who aren’t sure what a robin is, we’re absolute bird nerds.

I think this is a wren. I should have written it down.

Growing up, we had a couple blue bird houses in back and a hummingbird feeder hanging off the deck. But my grandparents maintained a monstrous contraption of a bird feeder, with suet, thistle, sunflower, and probably a couple other extensions. My grandfather had a longstanding contest with the local squirrels, but unlike me he was actually pretty successful in building baffles to keep the little moochers off. It wasn’t until recently that the trees had gotten too big and too close, and the squirrels could just LEAP directly onto the feeder.

But for years, the squirrels foraged under the feeder and the birds fed at their appointed places and splashed in their heated (in winter) birdbath.

My Grandparents received Birds and Blooms magazine, and whenever we arrived at their house for a visit I would immediately grab a magazine and flip through the pages looking at all the spectacular, brilliantly colored, photography. I never read the full length articles, just the short little blurbs and funny stories. But oh, those pictures.

Phone calls, letters, and conversation centered on the happenings at the bird feeder—what notable bird visited, or the time the fox came through with a half-eaten something in his mouth, or the day the hawk visited and ALL THE BIRDS avoided the yard for hours. I imagine, if there were a zoologist historian at some point in the future, they would like to have my grandmother’s letters. But given that they are all written in cursive, they won’t be able to read them.

The aviary is my favorite part of the zoo, and I always try to stop and listen to the birds, even though I have only the barest grasp on which birds I’m hearing. Now that I’m grown and have a house of my own, I have a sunflower seed feeder.

I hang it off a tree branch I can reach from my deck, so I had no illusions about keeping the squirrels off—though I do throw cups of water at them sometimes when I feel like they’ve been on the feeder Every Single Time I’ve been out there.

I don’t mind at all when the cardinal in the tree outside my bedroom window scolds loudly because the feeder is empty. I love watching the housefinches, chickadees and the occasional titmouse pigging out on the feeder.

Blue Jay (those Jays…)

After a lifetime of drawing horses, I was surprised to find an affinity for birds. I really love painting birds, and half the time I really love how the paintings come out. I attribute it to the hours and hours I spent poring over Birds and Blooms, staring at breathtaking hummingbirds, titmice, tanagers, orioles, chickadees, bluebirds (east and west), blue jays (east and west)…of course, the more shy, insect eating birds I know essentially nothing about (there are armies of wrens and warblers and sparrows that I’m only seeing now because I have an uncle and an aunt who are Real Avid Birders with a Really Nice Camera).

I’ve started to experiment with different looks and feels for my bird paintings, and will probably start asking various wildlife and raptor rehabilitation centers if they are interested in having a piece to auction.

What about you? Do you bird watch? Or are birds those mysterious avian monsters from that Hitchcock movie? Which of these birds did you like best and want to see in the Etsy shop? (The Blue Vireo is already there)

A King in Spring

Exploring on a long rein ❤

It’s been quite a while since I’ve given an update on Midas—we’re still riding! We had some interesting setbacks last fall, ironically due almost entirely to the success I’ve had remaking Midas into a good citizen. He’s got a teenager now who rides him a couple times a week, and my rides now include a good bit of retraining. Anyone who grew up at a lesson barn on lesson horses should understand how lesson horses, with the rare exception, are the way they are because they have so many riders at so many skill levels that they either get away with murder or they plod along keeping their heads down.

Midas would be the one getting away with murder. It’s not really because he likes murder, per se, it’s just his default solution to things. A regular murder-hobo, that one.

We have definitely spent a lot of time rehashing issues I’d buried years ago. It’s really interesting to see which parts of the training unravel, and which parts you have to focus on in order to restore the whole.

I get the impression that most people find manners either dull, cute, or otherwise optional until the manners are so bad that they are obviously dangerous. But manners are everything, and the only way to get them is to teach them and insist on them.

One of the most important things in re-establishing behavior and boundaries is the grooming time. I require that the horse stand still while being groomed, and not wander off to eat unless given express permission. For example, Midas knows that if I point to grass and say “OK, eat” he’s clear to stuff his face until I have something else for him to do. It doesn’t count as permission if he dives for the grass and I say, “ok, fine, whatever, I’m tired of fighting with you.”

In return for respect, I try to provide an incredibly pleasant grooming experience full of kind conversation and itch scratching.

It’s important the horse not move unless asked or released, because I’m the one in charge. The last thing I asked was for the horse to stop and stand still, so he should until told otherwise. He’s not loose and alone, he’s with me.

It’s important to note here that I don’t tie the horse, haven’t in years, and haven’t used crossties in so long that it startles me to see a horse cross-tied. Now, you don’t START with a horse who stands quietly without being tied, but you can’t get one unless you teach him.

There are some days we spend the whole grooming time with Midas trying to walk off or eat, and I quietly put his feet back where I left them and refuse to let him tune me out. On a very bad day, I hold the lead rope the whole time I groom. Days like that pretty uniformly mean that our mounted work will be rudimentary and fraught.

Sometimes, though, I can recapture his mind with groundwork—since he already knows yielding in hand, I try to change things up. New locations, mixing commands with just following me at trot or walk or through figures. We had to give up total liberty for a while, but we’re getting back to following work without the rope as a training measure.

As spring really kicked into gear, we started to have mounted work that felt like the work from last spring. He stopped charging into trot again, and I invested a few rides in making him stand and wait outside the ring and the payoff was the ability to have a nice long hack on the buckle around all the neighbor fields.

I mix up my rides as much as possible, one day we use a saddle and work on softness at trot and transitions. Other days we use the bareback pad (or nothing at all) and focus entirely on seat and legs and mounting block manners in the ring and abroad using woodpiles.

A couple weeks ago I got on him with just a lead rope from the woodpile down the driveway and rode him utterly gearless back to the barn.

Last week we wove cones at walk with just a neck rope.

I’m starting to hope that we can, again, start working at trotting bridleless.

Each ride varies, and I’ve no doubt that the mindset I walk in on is directly tied to what happened when the teenager rode him.

But what doesn’t vary is that he won’t calm down if I am not calm. He won’t obey if I am not the leader all the time—isn’t there a line from something, “Am I not Queen?”—either I’m Queen all the time or I’m not Queen.

I’m a good Queen. I work very hard to pay attention to his needs, to make sure gear fits and is smoothly in place, to scratch itches, reward good tries, and not punish things that weren’t intended as slights or rebellion. I try to listen when he has something to tell me, so he knows that he’s not a slave. But….he is a subject.

Midas isn’t a fool. He appreciates considerate behavior. But, he has this baggage, and sometimes can’t bring himself to just BE considerate himself. Last year I’d mostly re-structured his responses so we were working on canter and brideless and liberty.

But, the introduction of a beginner intermediate rider brought his baggage roaring back. Not as bad as it was—not by a long shot. He was still ridable, for one thing. I don’t think he’s bolted outright with her, for example. But he does charge around like an idiot, and he doesn’t exactly steer or bend amazingly.

It’s good to see, though, that he doesn’t lose everything. That I was able to give him a new lease on life, another level of usefulness, another way of relating to humans that doesn’t shoot first and ask questions later. At least…he sticks to kneecaps…baby steps, right?