It’s early on a winter morning, and snow is falling.
At daybreak I’d used a snow shovel to scrape a bare space on the ground behind our house before scattering sunflower seeds for the birds. The snow has covered the seeds now, but the birds dig them out. There’s a lot of activity — doves, blue jays, juncos and cardinals on the ground, chickadees and tufted titmice at the hanging feeders, woodpeckers at the suet cages and a nuthatch eating suet upside down. The falling snow has brought them all out at once, the way snow in the forecast sends us to the supermarket.
I’ve been feeding birds for years, but this winter I’m finally paying attention to them. The two feeders I put up long ago stand at the bottom of our back yard, so far from the house that I needed binoculars to watch birds there. The decision to hang those feeders was purely altruistic, to help birds survive the winter. Though we still use them, this fall I hung two more from the Canadian maple a few feet from our house, close to a cedar tree where birds can find cover, and my life changed.
Feeding the birds is no longer entirely selfless. I lure them with food to have them close. Bird song in the yard on a 12-degree morning is cheering. A cardinal’s whistle feels like sunshine. If it’s already light out when I wake up, the first thing I do is look out the window to see who’s down there waiting to eat. Mourning doves and blue jays, usually the first birds to arrive for breakfast, fly away when I go out to serve it, returning only when I’m back inside the house. But the chickadees are happy to see me. Bold enough to flutter at the feeders as I fill them, they cheep and twitter, maybe making suggestions, offering encouragement, expressing gratitude or scolding me for being slow. I can’t tell. They use 13 complex vocalizations to communicate, so they could be saying anything about me. But it can’t be all bad; if I’m patient they’ll take seeds from my hand, tickling my palm with their little talons.
I have no favorites among the various species. All are worth studying, and as I study them I wonder why we feel superior to other living things: each bird is a marvel, able to fly with speed and precision and to stop on a dime, to find food in a harsh climate, to survive sub-zero nights in a tree, to communicate with its kind, to gather building materials in the spring and to weave a complex nest with its beak. Even the chickadee, weighing less than my house key, has a brain, memory, lungs and heart, a digestive system as complex as our own and the ability to lower its metabolism to preserve body heat on cold nights. A chickadee is perfection in miniature, a Rolex in feathers.
They’re almost always in motion, chickadees, darting back and forth in a looping flight across the yard or zipping between the cedar tree and the feeder. Once they grab a seed, they carry it to a sturdy branch, usually in the maple, where they pin it with their talons and hammer it countless times to crack it open and peck away at the good bits inside. Even sitting in a tree to wait for their turn at the feeder, they’re constantly moving, twitching, fidgeting, looking all around, heads tilting this way and that, some part of them always in motion. And they’re quick. One chickadee I saw on a branch turned 180 degrees in an eyeblink. I did see a chickadee at rest briefly, half-hidden in the green boughs of the cedar tree, motor idling. Even then, its little heart would have been cranking at 500 beats per minute.
I wonder if watching birds, honoring their existence with full attention and losing myself in the process, may be the closest I’ll ever come to knowing peace. Observing them blocks the distractions of modern life and stills a mind churning with random thoughts — memories of the past, worries about the future, pondering the day’s news and the week’s to-do list, wondering if grifters, fascists and oligarchs will succeed in undermining our republic, reminding myself to add onions to the shopping list…
Watching birds so intently stops the mental chatter and brings me back to the present moment. That’s a good place to be.
Robert Bechtold lives in Morris. ‘Senior Scene’ columns can be found at www. thedailystar.com/news/lifestyles.