Bird Lessons

IMG_1565Presence; that ever-elusive state of nowness. One of the best ways I know to cultivate presence is to hang a birdfeeder (or several) in a peaceful slice of a backyard. Many of the most meaningful conversations I’ve had with my children have taken place in the company of birds who lunch. Politics, parenting, relationships, vocation; a backyard feeding station is life in miniature; the daily rituals of finding a mate, the artistry of a well constructed nest, the tender caring for young, the enjoyment of a meal, and every now and then the pleasure of a nice cool bath.

While sipping our morning coffee, we marvel at the antics of the ruby-throated hummingbirds challenging each other to duels over the giant plastic flower filled with sugar water. We ponder this microcosm of scarcity and resources and its affect on these tenacious dazzlers desperately fighting for survival. They are not unlike immigrants worldwide seeking resources in an ever-changing global environment. How unfathomable to imagine their arduous journey over the Gulf of Mexico, only those miniscule wings to keep them aloft. What drives humans and wildlife to make perilous journeys? Resources, scarcity, an innate longing for life.

A fledgling cowbird flutters in with a tiny chipping sparrow half its size, frantically flapping its wings and chirping incessantly at this small bird it perceives to be its mother. “Feed me, feed me!” The somewhat comical display raises the question, what defines a successful parent? Does the fact that Mama Cowbird dropped off her egg in Mama Sparrow’s nest make her a brilliant opportunist who can now enjoy casual lunches at the sunflower buffet while another bird is responsible for her needy child? Is she lazy or a genius? Maybe both. And what about Papa Cowbird? Where was he when his offspring was deposited with a stranger? Which is stronger nature or nurture? And how does this abandoned cowbird learn to be a cowbird?

And oh my, look at that handsome red crested cardinal delicately placing seeds in his lovely mate’s beak. What is it that makes a relationship work? Should she be more independent? Your daughter’s boyfriend (thankfully, now ex) disdainfully declares she should be retrieving her own seeds. It’s hard not to shoot daggers at him. Obviously he’s courting her and proving he will be a reliable mate, one who will partner with her in raising their children. (inaudibly, you add, moron).

As downy and red-bellied woodpeckers swoop in and cling to the suet feeder, the finches dangle from the thistle filled sock like golden minions. Meanwhile, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches and cardinals congregate around the seed filled hopper, each intuitively knowing where they belong. How do we tap into our own innate wisdom and knowing? How do we find our feeder; that true north inside that we can trust exists because we too are part of nature?

My children have all flown the nest now, each following their individual path. When they visit, we still congregate on the patio and tune in to the birds. There’s something deeply grounding in observing nature. It reminds us that we are meant to connect with the rhythms of the day and gives us permission to embrace simplicity. Isn’t this what most of us long for? A supportive partner; a safe, cozy nest; to nurture and to be nurtured; to enjoy a simple meal, and every now and then the pleasure of a nice warm bath. It’s elemental; a display of universal longing that begs the question, what can we learn from these brilliant feathered teachers?


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