Wednesday, December 23, 2015

For The Birds, Part 2

To recap the story so far, our old feeder and pole had been damaged irreparably by an onslaught of corpulent doves, and after an inordinate amount of difficulty, I managed to assemble a new feeder and locate a stronger pole that needed some modification before I could use it.

The new pole was ten feet long, which meant I had to dig the existing hole two feet deeper in order to mount the feeder the required six feet above ground—four and a half feet deep in all.

The added depth was a bit of a concern. Our soil is riddled with boulders, some of them quite large. I was lucky the first time around in that I encountered no obstacles, but I was really pushing my luck going two feet further down. I hoped I didn't have to blast.

Of course, I could simply have cut two feet off the new pole and made the job a whole lot easier. I didn't do that because rigid electrical conduit is heavy, and as I mentioned last time, it has a certain amount of flex in it. With the feeder at its top, it will have a tendency to flex back and forth in heavy winds, and the flection could conceivably extend down below ground level, increasing the risk that the pole will work itself loose and start to lean. The deeper footing should prevent that.

I pulled the old pole up, and was very happy to see that there was no rust on it to speak of. This was a nice verification that six inches of rocks in the bottom of the hole was sufficient drainage, even in our slow-draining soil.

Then, I started to dig. The first two and a half feet of the hole was easy, because all I was doing was emptying the hole I'd already made. I saved the sand from the first two feet in one pile, and the rocks and dirt from next six inches in another, so that I could re-use the fill.

At the Farm House, we even recycle dirt and rocks.

From that point on, the work was considerably more tiring. I haven't done any really hard physical work since my last bout of tendinitis in January, and on top of that I had had that spell of pneumonia. My arms and lungs were thus in need of a good workout, and boy, did they get it now.

On the way down the hole, I needed frequent rest stops in order to catch my breath, and so to keep things moving I decided to alternate the hole-digging with the task of reducing the diameter of the top of the pole so that the receptacle on the bottom of the feeder would fit. I have very little experience working with steel, but I figured a file would be the right tool for the job.

I have an extensive collection of files inherited from my uncle, so I picked out the most appropriate-looking one, cleaned its teeth with a brass brush, and started filing away. I went slowly and methodically around the circumference of the pipe as far in from one end as would be necessary to accommodate the receptacle. Once I came back around to the starting point, I slipped the receptacle over the end to check the fit. It slipped readily along as far down as the pipe threads went, and then stopped. I filed around the pipe again where it was still too big, and when I checked the fit again, the receptacle progressed about a sixty-fourth of an inch further down. It seemed as if I were taking off a lot of material, but apparently I wasn't.

So I worked around the pipe once again, more aggressively this time. This yielded another sixty-fourth of an inch of progress. Something seemed wrong. I did a little research on the Internet, and learned that I was using the right kind of file, and I was using the proper technique, more or less. So I abandoned the hole-digging for the time being, and worked on that pipe for the rest of the day and well into the evening. While my arms benefited from the exercise, I didn't make much progress. Still, the project up to that point had been so full of mishaps and complications that I just accepted the situation. I was happy that I was making any progress at all. I was a hostage to fate, and the Helsinki syndrome had set in.

Wifey suggested that perhaps the file I was using was dull. That had not occurred to me. The file looked perfectly fine. There were no broken teeth, and there was no evident wear. Still, she had something there. After all, my uncle had inherited his father's tools. There was a very good chance that the file I was using was older than I was, and had been used a lot. Moreover, it had been kicking around in a tool box with a number of other files for a long while.

The next day, I got a new file of the same type and went back to work. In an hour I was done, and the receptacle slid down fully without binding or wobbling. I primed and painted the filed area to prevent rust.  

While I may not be the sharpest tool in the box, with Wifey's help I feel as if I can do anything. We make a good team.

With the pole now all ready to meet its destiny, I went out and finished the hole. There are tools made specifically for this purpose that make the job simple: the post-hole digger, and the digging bar.

I use a post-hole digger of a unique design, called The Hole Deal, and I highly recommend it over the traditional design. All post-hole diggers comprise a pair of shovels joined with a pivot so that when the shovels are brought together, they capture soil between them that is then lifted out of the hole. The traditional design joins them with a simple pivot, so that the handles must be separated to bring the shovels together. This gets progressively more difficult as the hole gets deeper, because it is hard to keep the soil in the digger when the sides of the hole are limiting how much the handles can be separated.

The Hole Deal uses a two-pivot design so that the handles and shovels move in parallel; its handles are brought together to bring the shovels together. The sides of the hole and its depth are thus not limiting factors, and it is very easy to keep the dirt captured between the shovels as the digger is lifted up. This allows one to dig holes that are plumb and uniform all the way down. Although the digger is only five feet long, I had no difficulty in taking the hole down to four and a half feet without my having to widen the top of the hole.

The other tool is called a digging bar. It is a six-foot-long iron bar with a chisel end and a tamper end. The chisel end is used to loosen the dirt at the bottom of the hole to make it easier to remove with the post-hole digger; the tamper end is used to settle and compact material at the bottom of a hole. The digging bar is also used to dislodge and break up rocks, or cut roots, as necessary.

Happily, I encountered absolutely no obstacles on the way down, so while the work went slowly, it also went steadily. I got so enthusiastic at the end that I actually went an inch farther than I needed to. Then I had lunch.

You may be wondering why I set the pole in sand, rather than concrete. While there are several advantages to the use of sand as a base, the reason I used it here is that we have no overall plan for the yard design, and until we do I don't want to build anything that I can't easily remove. If you think a concrete footing would have kept the old pole from leaning, take a look at it:

Clearly, the sand held the pole so firmly that it bent at ground level; it did not shift in the hole. If I had set the pole in concrete, I would have had to excavate and lift out a hundred-pound cylinder of it, and then I would have had to dispose of that.

It occurred to me when contemplating the pole with the socket that I could have sunk the socket in concrete in order to give it some measure of stability, but without drain holes at the bottom it would have rusted out in short order, causing the pole to move back and forth in the hole more or less constantly. This movement would dislodge the concrete plug soon enough, and the pole would fall over.

I could have put down two feet of concrete to prevent its being easily dislodged, but then I'd have that hundred pounds of concrete to remove someday. This was altogether too much work for a setup that would never have been satisfactory.

The best material to use for setting poles in sand is actually not sand, strictly speaking, but crushed granite (usually called "decomposed granite", or "DG" for short). DG is the best because its individual granules are jagged, and tend to interlock pretty firmly when the material is compacted, making it quite stable and resistant to movement. This is why it is used for baseball diamonds and "gravel" driveways; as I've mentioned, we use it for our own driveway.

Unfortunately, DG is generally not available in smaller than half-truckload lots, at least not hereabouts, so instead I use paver-base sand, which is readily available in 50- to 70-pound bags. Paver-base sand is silica sand of a uniform fine grain; it interlocks to a lesser degree than DG, but it is more than stable enough to serve nicely for setting poles. Building sand will work if necessary, but not playground sand, which has no silica and offers insufficient resistance to movement.

A word of caution: never handle any silica-containing sand when it is dry without breathing protection, because silica dust acts like sandpaper in the respiratory tract. It is best and most convenient to work with it moistened enough to prevent dust from kicking up.

After lunch, I screened the two piles of the material I'd removed from the original hole in order to remove debris and reclaim the stones that were in them. 

I put a layer of larger stones down as evenly as I could at the bottom of the hole, put the rest of the stones back in, and tamped them down with the tamper end of my digging bar to minimize any settling when the hole was filled. I ended up 3/4 of an inch higher than I wanted, but that is close enough for my purpose, and the extra drainage won't hurt. I put in water to just above the level of the rocks, and let things settle overnight.

As I mentioned, our soil drains very slowly.

But I was not yet done for the evening. I drove four three-foot wood stakes into the ground, each about two feet away from the center of the hole, two of them situated roughly parallel to the back wall of the house, and two perpendicular to it.

When tomorrow came, I lowered the pole into the hole slowly, taking care to land the pole somewhere in the center. Precise positioning is not crucial, but a position near the center ensures that the pole is supported evenly around its circumference, thus increasing its tendency to remain plumb as the sand settles. As it happened, the pole found a nice little niche within a half-inch of dead center. This positioning is ideal, for it locks the bottom of the pole firmly in place, further enhancing its tendency to remain true to the earth.

Having achieved this, I carefully moved the pole over to rest against the side without knocking it out of its niche. I took a length of sash cord (any rope will do), tied one end to one of the wood posts, looped the other end around the pole and tied a taut-line hitch around the cord. This is a knot that I learned back in Cub Scouts, very useful when you need to adjust the length of a rope under tension. I use the knot shown on Wikipedia as #1857 (the third one listed at the link).

I did this for all four posts, all the while moving the pole gently to avoid dislodging its bottom end. Then, I attached a post level to the pole at eye level, oriented it so one side was parallel to the rear wall of the house, then I adjusted the length of each rope by sliding the taut-line hitch towards or away from the pole until the bubbles in both horizontal vials were centered. indicating that the pole was plumb (i.e., perpendicular to the ground). I tightened the cords just enough to ensure that the pole stayed plumb, and no tighter.

This reminds me that I have forgotten to tell you about the post level, one more specialized tool used in this job. It has two spirit vials positioned horizontally at right angles to each other to check for plumb, and one positioned at a right angle to the other vials vertically to check the top of a post or beam for level with the ground. 

This gag with the ropes and wood posts was something I whipped up this time around, so I would be free to work with both hands without undue worry about keeping the pole plumb. I've put poles up several times before without doing this, and it was quite awkward filling the hole with one hand while trying to keep the pole plumb with the other.

I worked with the posts and the level oriented to the house's footprint because the feeder would most often be viewed from the house. Theoretically it doesn't really matter how one orients the posts or the level, but a post level is not a terribly precise instrument, and orienting things the way I did maximized its precision along the most-used sight lines.

With the pole thus secured, I filled the hole back up, starting with the screened sand I took out of the old hole and continuing with some new sand. I put it in a trowelful at a time evenly around the pole, stopping every six inches or so to wet the sand evenly, putting just enough water in to cover the sand and then letting it drain in order to eliminate any little air pockets and to get the sand to settle evenly and firmly.

At eight inches below ground, I switched from sand to decomposed granite, which I stole from my supply that I have for filling divots in the driveway. I put in six inches of it just to help keep the pole on the straight and narrow path. I topped up the last two inches of the hole with screened dirt to give the installation a finished appearance, then let the whole hole settle overnight before I put a load on the pole.

Early the next morning, I put the feeder in place, and Wifey set a table of tasty comestibles for our little pals. As is always the case with a new feeder, it was greeted with great skepticism at first; the little creatures of the forest are rightly skeptical of change. By mid-afternoon, however, we had our first hungry customer.

This reminds me that my next job is to clean the gutters.

Our feeder is open to all our little woodland friends. But as for the company that sold us the feeder with its crappy screws and instructions as well as that pathetic excuse for a mounting pole, the company with the buncombe-laden product descriptions, the company that through its malfeasance turned a simple task into a major project—well, that company is strictly for the birds.

* * *

"My client is prepared to plead to one count of PC 481(a)(2), Knocking Non-Glass Ornament Off Christmas Tree, if the count of PC 666(e), Grand Theft Bird Ornament, is dropped."


  1. It seems that once the original issues were resolved, the rest of the project went fairly smoothly. "Workman, know thy tools" is a great motto (or whatever) to live by, and I'm glad I just thought of it. Sometimes it is the person sitting on the sidelines, watching, who comes up with the right answer, as Wifey did. Nice job, Wifey! I'm guessing that your files filed each other down while in the tool box over those many years.

    No fair switching to Spanish, by the way.

    How are the collared doves doing? Have they understood the message yet? Do they realize they are not wanted? Have they formed an axis of evil with the squirrels? I am surprised that you did not use the pole as the center of a Christmas tree for your outdoor furry and feathered friends to enjoy. It is certainly stout enough to take all of the ormanents (as my kids used to say) that you could find around the yard - old files, obsolete hole diggers, collared dove skeletons, etc.

    As usual, this was a fine story, and well written. I look forward with great anticipation to the next installment!

    1. Thanks, Jon!

      This would indeed have been a simple replacement task (other than the difficulty with the screws) if the people who sold the feeder also sold a suitable way to mount it, and I would have had it up in July.

      Isn't the saying actually "Cast thy tools upon the waters, for thou shall find them rusty after many days"? Wait, that's not it. I did learn a valuable lesson about files and their proper care. Now I have to figure out a good way to store my new file.

      The collared doves have not yet returned. This new pole can handle them, and the new feeder will at least limit their number, but we will still have to deal with their bad table manners.

  2. At last! No longer are we competing with the dove population!!! They may visit but cannot sit directly on the stand. I'm all for sharing with my bluejay pals but... Thanks for a job well done. Squirrel

    1. So happy you approve! We do it for you guys. As for the collared doves, I was hoping the crows would teach them some manners, but they just bailed entirely. Maybe you could talk to them.

  3. Didn't your new file come with a plastic cover? My Father-in-law was nothing if not inventive and thrifty - he covered the files that I "inherited" from him in old water hose. I forget what he used for the larger files but a short (1 ft) piece of plastic tubing from your local hardware store would do nicely.

    Check out your local Audubon Society and see if they offered etiquette classes for the doves. I checked and they offer them here in Utah:

    1. That's a great idea, Jon. Thanks. I'm referring to the file storage idea, not the other one.


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