Thirds for the Birds

It’s quiet. You’ve walked through a garage to the back. Moments ago, even from the freshly shoveled front walk, you heard dozens of birds chirping, but now there’s a hush.

The door behind has slammed, and you’re standing in the back yard.

A Canada jay whisks by, the sound of its wingbeat heavy but barely audible. An evening grosbeak doubles back to a feeder hanging five feet above the ground from a tree.

It chirps once.

Several black-capped chickadees alight on the branch of a pine tree protruding from the edge of the yard to the bird feeder in the middle.

Then a downy woodpecker lands on a meshed container with suet inside.

A tiny bell hanging from the feeder tinkles. That’s all it takes. What was awesome winter silence moments ago becomes, once again, a growing din of chirping and picking.

The birds become accustomed to your presence, and one by one return to the crisscross network of bird feeders Jim and Eileen Third keep filled with seed all season.

Once it was just a passing fancy, but now it’s a full-time hobby. People from miles around come to see the Thirds’ birds, and more often than not bring a bag of sunflower seeds or millet to help out. Even the naturalists at Wasagaming in Riding Mountain National Park, when asked if there are any winter birds around, send people to the park’s fringe where the Thirds live.

“We don’t mind,” Eileen says. “All year long, and especially in winter, we get visitors from across Canada and the United States. Most of the time they just sit out here in the back yard and watch or photograph the birds.”

Probably the noisiest birds are evening grosbeaks, flocking together around a pile of sunflower seeds, settling down to crack them apart. Then they sing.

Song sparrows cry incessantly. Chickadees chatter away and cowbirds, although they stay hidden in the trees, call with uncanny regularity.

“Once we piped the Hallelujah Chorus from our hi-fi out into the yard,” Eileen says, “and you should have heard them. They loved it.”

“People laugh at our name because it rhymes with birds.”

The name on their mailbox reads “The Four Thirds.” That’s because Jim is one of four Jim Thirds in a generation line, and because Jim and Eileen have two children. A natural, no? Four Thirds, no matter how you look at it. And far more birds.

Since she began identifying them eight years ago just for the fun of it, Eileen has counted 33 species from her dining room window overlooking the back yard, and now she’s as avid an ornithologist as Audubon himself must have been. Her hobby has transformed the place into a sanctuary she mothers like a hen. When a pair of robins nested in the eaves above the porch, she put up a little round mirror just above to watch.

One spring, she gave Jim a haircut outside, leaving the cuttings where they fell. Next day they were gone, but it didn’t take long to find the nest a pine siskin had built with Jim’s hair in a shrub on the lawn.

“It was the nicest nest you ever saw in your life,” she says in a soft voice that seems always on the brink of a giggle. “It was so smooth inside.”

She’s a gentle woman with a kindly face, the type who would never speak a harsh word. And her soft-spoken husband complements her with his gruff, but still gentle ways. Between the two of them, they exude an atmosphere of peace and calm when you visit in their home. They talk laughingly about their first date years ago when Jim tippled

a little and left Eileen to find her own way home, and about the joys of raising their two children now both married with families of their own.

But as much as anything else, they enjoy talking about their birds with an intimacy that comes only after years of loving care.

Today the nest that pine siskin built after the haircut Eileen gave Jim rests on the Thirds’ living room mantelpiece. It’s one of precious few things Eileen ever took from her birds. Most of the time she just loves them, feeds them, and listens to their songs.

More Stories