For the Birds

When we had chickens, I got in the habit of giving them extra calories when it got cold out. I’d wake up on a frigid night thinking about how they needed a serving of oatmeal in the morning and research how to keep their water dish from freezing over. Chickens don’t like having their feet in the snow and remain “cooped up” most of the winter, lending the phrase to us in our own winter blues. So, in addition to keeping them warm, I also had to think about how to keep their chicken brains stimulated enough that they wouldn’t turn on each other over the long winter. Some chicken enrichment activities include giving them a head of cabbage to inspect and eat, a bale of hay to inspect and spread out, a bundle of compost to inspect and tear up, a little toy to inspect and peck at. Depending on the breed, you might have to chase them down and grease their wattles so they don’t get frostbite. Winter chicken management was a big part of the household logistics. I learned that they loved hot oatmeal, cilantro stems and spent coffee grounds.

Now when it gets cold here in Wisconsin, I get worried about whether the wild birds have what they need to get by. It’s a habit. I put my boots and coat on to fill the feeders, and when that’s done, I take a couple of extra handfuls of feed and throw them in a big arc across the snow. I used to do this for the chickens sometimes. A bird enrichment activity.

A neighbor told me that, according to an ornithologist she knows, the astounding variety of birds we see on our street is because we’re situated in between two of the highest points in the city. Our bird feeders are likely stopping points on the Madison bird highway. On any given day, I’m able to look out my window and see a half dozen different kind of birds in a short period. More if I leave the house, which I don’t do much this time of year. One day this year, I saw grackles, redwing blackbirds, cardinals, finches, blue jays, robins, woodpeckers and others I couldn’t identify on a single bird feeder. I’ve also seen owls, hawks and even a crane on the street. A small group of wild turkeys regularly walk down the road, perusing the yards for tasty bits, making regular stops to sit on certain porches for a rest. Eagles populate a nearby area by the lake and swoop over your head with an audible whoosh as you walk the trail. 

I recently picked up the book “How to Do Nothing” by Jenny Odell, and I’ve been rapt in her observations about birds and bird watching up against the demands of the rest of the world. She calls it “bird noticing,” acknowledging the effort it takes to wrench our attentions away from the hooks of technology to focus our intentions on the natural. It takes time and effort to reorient your attention to things that aren’t engineered to hold your attention, to notice them, and then to think about them.

Noticing them is not just about this demonstration of effort, but also how they come and go as they please, living entire lives ambivalent about and yet in parallel with our own. They are not waiting to be noticed. They are living.

The more you consider a bird, the more you realize, like she says in this Atlantic essay, “they look more and more like willful individuals.” Some of the songbirds like eating off the ground. Some are shy and hang out in the brambles and branches around, waiting their turn. Others demand a place at the feeder, ready and willing to fight for it. They come every day, twice a day, once as the sun rises and once before it sets.

Considering birds to this degree, coming to know them and their autonomy and individual experiences, is not apolitical. It draws into question all kinds of priorities and preferences that are rather unkind to birds, from climate change to house cats, and all the other choices we make that are perilous to their quality of life. I have wondered about the relative lack of birds in my last home, three hundred miles southeast, and suspect it’s due to the ecological monoculture and a lack of balance between natural conservation and urban progress. You can give them food and water, sure, and they will come, but they will stay when they also have trees and shrubs and brambles and seedpods and ground cover to make a life in. They will thrive when we demonstrate enough care to consider their quality of life and act with concern.

Odell says

“I’m seeing this bird here, but it’s been in Alaska, it’s been in all these places that I can’t imagine and it’s on a totally different schedule, it doesn’t know what a week is, it’s just living its life according to its own logic.” And I can spend time with that and inhabit that for a while.

I’m inhabiting that for awhile. Birds know the seasons, the sunlight and their own bodily needs, they have habits and instincts that guide them through time and geography. They have friends, preferences, concerns. 

I’m trying to look up and notice the birds.

It’s going to be another long winter, and I’m cooped up here again with the family and the pets, staring down the third year of pandemic, thinking up personal enrichment activities so we don’t turn on each other. I’m working from home for now, and my desk is at a large window. The window overlooks a series of backyards, some fencing, a willow and a birch tree, and the little lives that flourish in all of it. A couple of weeks ago, while I was in a Zoom meeting, an entire flock of wild turkeys sat across the neighbors’ back fence. Today, I drafted an email while watching two dozen lady cardinals forage an arc of birdseed in the snow.

Lauren Bruce • January 6, 2022

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