I have lived at the same garden apartment complex since
1985.  Back when I moved here, it was the only apartment
complex of its kind in the area.  It was built when there
was still land available and when the contractors left the
largest most beautiful trees standing rather than the less
expensive clear cutting method used by builders today.  
Now it is the only complex surround by any land at all.
Apartment buildings or condos have since been built up
and down the road every hundred feet or so.  There are
dozens of complexes with thousands of units, most built
right up against the busy street, sandwiched between
retail shopping and office buildings.  Ours, built on
lovely park like grounds with its tall old trees and grassy
rolling lawns, has become an oasis standing against the
sands of time and encroaching urban sprawl.  
Residents decide how they will use this
amenity within the bounds of the few
rules set by management.  Some
residents use this space regularly,
treating it as another room of their
apartments.  I've seen people out eating
on them, sitting and reading their
newspaper or entertaining friends.  
Some use them strictly as their personal
designated smoking area keeping the
inside of their apartments smoke free.    
I have one of the best locations in the whole complex.  My third floor porch overlooks a quiet,
beautifully maintained courtyard with grassy rolling knolls.  I am almost totally hidden by a cluster
of tall pine trees and in the summer, when the Linden trees are in full leaf, I can hardly see the
building across from mine.  It is as close as you can get to living in a tree house.  

Every summer, over the many, many years I have lived here, I have gone through different
trends in my treatment of my balcony.  Besides planting my summer annual flowers and moving
all my house plants to the balcony each year, I use my porch as a sort of a nature preserve.
After many happy years of watching parents busily raising young, all the birds just disappeared
and my lovely third floor aviary went totally quiet.  It was as though some horrible plague had
wiped out all of my feathered friends.  At first I blamed my new cat who was himself an avid
birdwatcher hiding for hours behind the blinds to jump at any unsuspecting bird.  But it wasn't
just my balcony.  There were no birds to be seen or heard anywhere.  I went from having as
many as four feathered families to none in one season.  Their absence and the eerie silence
was mystifying.
At least I had the answer to the bird dearth mystery.  The nesting birds were gone for several
seasons having vacated the hawk's territory for their own safety.  Thinking they had refugeed
away from the terrorist that now inhabited our once peaceful environment was better than
imagining that the hawk had eaten every last one of them.  
Not wanting to give up my birdwatching entirely I changed
from bird feeders to birdhouses.  I kept them and any mess
they created within the confines of my own walls.  I only
raised house sparrows as they are one of the few cavity
dwellers among my available species, but they are still very
interesting.
When I regained some composure I tried to make
mental notes of its markings so that I could look it up in
my bird book, but to me it just looked like a huge brown
preying  bird.  I decided that what I saw was a red-tailed
hawk in summer plumage.  
On and off through the day the parents could be seen and heard coming to relieve the other.  
They are mercifully quiet about raising their family too.  There is no loud raucous squalling or
the constant din of busy sparrows, just the whistling wings of a parent taking flight or the
occasional mournful call they are named for.  
Two of my mourning dove babies ready to fledge.
Adapting to the loss of birds was hard though I had other visitors that hampered my balcony
birding.  One particularly cold winter the squirrels decided that my beautiful homemade
multi-compartment birdhouses would be nice warm places to spend the frigid months.  After
all, the birds weren't using them so they set about renovating the birdhouses to suit their
purpose. Of course in doing so they destroyed the birdhouses which weren't quite big enough
for the fat fox squirrels so prevalent on our apartment grounds.  
Since the birds had quit visiting anyhow and the squirrels had moved in, I decided to go with
the "if you can't beat them, join them" philosophy.  To that end I built a house appropriate for
squirrels and its residents have provided me with endless hours of pure delight.  
Come join me while we explore some of the joys of balcony living.  We shall be planting and
decorating and making balcony art, wind chimes and pinwheels.  We'll take a look at building
birdhouses, birdfeeders and squirrel nesting boxes and erecting a working water fountain.   
Whether you aim for a fresh air sitting room or a moving picture window on nature's daily
activities, there are so many possibilities for that little bit of the great outdoors we are
allotted.  
All ground level units in the complex have a patio.  The patios in the front of the buildings are
partially sunken and hidden from the parking lot by shrubbery, while the ones at the back are at
ground level.  In many cases the ground level patios lead out on to the grassy lawns giving
those tenants their own backyards. Second floor apartments have a balcony that is open on
three sides which is simply a platform or deck surrounded by a railing.  Residents on the third
floor have an inset balcony that is almost completely enclosed.
Some residents just set out one or two of those inexpensive plastic molded chairs and may hang
a flower or two in the summer.  Still others don't seem to bother with the area at all.  Those
patios and balconies remain sadly empty and unadorned and the passerby is never quite sure if
the apartment is vacant or just what.   In some cases though community members are lucky if
residents leave them empty.  Sometimes, against all rules, an occasional tenant will store a bike
out on it, or stick an inappropriate piece of furniture out or use it for storage. There are even
some residents who use their balconies for drying their wet bathing suits and towels or, if you
can believe it, garbage storage bringing the whole complex down to tenement level.  
Management gets after the truly tacky and inconsiderate and shoot correction letters off to the
true offenders but is generally pretty tolerant of resident's varying tastes.
Years back, I used to hang bird feeders and had my own
private aviary.  The number of different birds you can see at
a back yard bird feeder is amazing.  I enjoyed chickadees
and nuthatches, finches and sparrows, morning doves and
jays and cardinals... it was great while it lasted.  But, alas,
birds can be very messy and even though I hung my feeders
out on long poles the birds still lit on my balcony railing and
caused a mess on both my balcony and the balcony and
patios below.  Feeding birds, no matter the joy it may bring,
is simply not practical in an apartment setting for those
above the ground floor.
decorated with ceramic statuary and garden ornaments which sit on the brick walls and hide
within the bushes.  From mid May to first frost it is surrounded by dozens of potted flowers. The
man sits at their umbrella table and works jigsaw puzzles for hours and greets all neighbors
coming or going.
One summer a pair of mourning doves
took up residence on top of one of my
makeshift birdhouses.  For many years
after I had, what I am sure was the same
breeding pair that raised a couple of
broods each season.
 
Then one day I was passing my balcony windows and
happened to glance out.  There, perched on the railing
staring at me, was the biggest, meanest, most menacing
bird I had ever seen.  It was a grim reaper, a character
from a Poe poem... it was so scary I actually screamed.  
That sent it off the balcony but only to the nearby pine.
My heart was pounding in my throat.
Then I got mad.  When you feed the wild animals they
come to expect it.  I've had squirrels and chipmunks
come right to my windows and look in as if to say,
"Where's the food?"  I got the impression this horrible
creature was doing the same thing.  Apparently he
thought I was running a fly- through McDonald's.
Now I realize that raptor birds are a part of the ecological system and that they have to feed
themselves and their young but there is something deeply upsetting when they strike.  One
minute the squirrels, chipmunks and songbirds are all gathered at a feeding site where some
benevolent, unsuspecting animal lover has left a pile of seeds.  The little creatures are
semi-peacefully eating the offering when a hawk swoops down and plucks one of them up
destroying the tranquil scene and one innocent life.  You feel like an accomplice at a murder
having unwittingly supplied this killer its meal.  Please keep this scenario in mind the next time
you leave seed scattered on the ground in an open unprotected space.  
Raising mourning doves was a
fascinating experience.  From picking a
nest site straight through to the time
the young fledge, the breeding pair are
equally involved.  It is a problem
knowing who is on duty at any particular
time because the male and female look
identical or are monomorphic.
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An elderly couple in my building
practically live on their sunken patio
every day that weather permits.  They
have it fully carpeted and furnished
with lovely patio furniture.  It is