Bird Watching

May 13, 2015

Somewhere along the way, we became bird people.

We don’t have chicken coops in the yard, though that’s something I think about often, maybe for when we’re empty nesters. What we do have is multiple bird feeders outside the kitchen window, enabling us to watch the avian comings and goings the way we once viewed television.

The enterprise began when my youngest expressed an interest in birds. As his fixation waned, my husband adopted the hobby. Now he begins his day by looking at the feeders, asking, “Where are my little birds?” He even believes that our large maple tree survived Hurricane Sandy more or less in tact because it is from its limbs that we feed our feathered-friends.

Though I was the last to get on our bird wagon, I have come to love them, too. I watch them as I brew my morning coffee, smiling at them as we take our breakfast together. After years of patience, I exulted in the arrival, at last, of our first goldfinch this month.

The varieties and their diverse coloration paint our view, and in little bursts, the sky comes to life as the birds fly hither and thither, in groups or on solo flights. My eyes light up when they scatter throughout the maple tree like holiday ornaments on the branches, and I adore listening to the woodpecker, whose sounds remind me of click-clacking knitting needles.

Mostly, though, I learn from their instincts. I harbor deep-seated frustration with the squirrels, those furry rodent gymnasts who circumvent the baffle and hang upside down on the feeder, stealing from someone else’s plate. But when that happens, the birds patiently wait on the ground beneath, eating what falls as the squirrels, who lack table manners, drop their scraps below.

The birds are resourceful, too. They build fine homes without the benefit of a Home Depot, spinning twigs and branches and dried up ivy spindles into a comfortable penthouse in which to hatch their offspring. There’s something truly magical in watching them feed their newborns, dropping the bits they’ve scavenged into the babies’ open beaks, their heads tilted back in anticipation.

On the other end of the lifecycle, my husband has had to give more than one bird a heartfelt burial over the years. But we’ve also found nests in our trees, and once, when we still lived in an apartment building, in a planter on our terrace. We had the privilege to do the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird after consulting with our local rabbi, and the process represented a powerful yet wrenching moment of separation for me at a time when our boys were still quite young.

As it happens, we also have plenty of bird tchotchkes throughout the house, including ceramic ones – one for each member of our family – that dangle from the chandelier. The acquisitions began after my mother-in-law passed away. She used to call my husband “her little bird,” and I buy a new one each year on her yahrzeit as a way to honor her. It took my husband a good while to notice, but they are gathering in number, and I do worry that over time our house might come to look like the avian wing in a natural history museum.

Still, there’s nothing like the view outdoors, of the birds in their natural habitat. It’s reassuring on a winter morning, when everything’s painted white and only bare-limbed trees stand tall, to spot a cardinal appear out of nowhere to grab a bite from the feeder, and then again in spring, when the birds return in large number, and we cannot keep the feeders full for long.

I enjoy their music and their grace, but mostly, I admire their determination and sense of purpose, and the gentle way they sail through the air, and the fact that they can fly at all.

And some days, after I’ve fed my own offspring and straightened up our nest, I want nothing more than to take flight with them, looking down on the blessings below.