Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bird Watching for Beginners

      My husband handed me a large lightweight box to open on Christmas morning and for once he had me stumped. I hadn’t asked for anything in particular and I couldn’t imagine what he’d put under the tree.

When I peeled away the wrapping paper I saw it was an oversized finch feeding station, three long tubes dissected by perches for 24 birds. The big station made the individual feeders I already had hanging--each with no more than 6 perches--look ridiculously small. He helped me fill the tubes with the Nijer seed and with my son's help hung it from a branch in the tree outside the big front window of our Cape Cod cottage. They teased me about the possibility of ever seeing it full of birds. 

But the next morning, as light began to filter through the darkness, I was up and I looked out the front window. There were already a few visitors to the feeder—the proverbial early birds—and by the time the sun was completely up, what sun there was on such a cold grey winter day, there was a busy goldfinch or pine siskin on every perch with at least another dozen flitting around the tree waiting for a turn or trying to bully someone into abandoning their spot.

Snow began to fall, drifting into soft piles on the limbs, and the tree was alive with tiny, hungry, beautiful birds.

One by one as my son and daughters, home for the holiday, woke up and made their way downstairs, they walked by the window and stopped to comment on what was going on in the branches. Their delight mirrored my own.

On New Year’s Eve we discovered the small frozen body of a bird beneath the feeder. I don’t know if it succumbed to the bitter cold or was the victim of a predator, maybe it died of old age, but after a holiday season that was marked by our family’s own loss, the tableau at the feeder just outside the window was a reminder that life can be unfair, and that even when there’s enough for all, not everyone is strong enough to survive.
Now, weeks into the new year, with everyone back to work or away at school I have the house to myself and the birds, the finches, iskins and chickadees are still busy in the tree. They are good company.

Writing is a solitary occupation. Most of my work is done alone in a quiet house. The quick, determined movement of the birds as they feed is a welcome distraction when I look up from my computer. Off and on throughout the day I find myself standing in front of the wide north-facing window in my living room, a hot cup of tea in my cold hands, daydreaming as I watch the birds fly in and out of the tree.

It is not lost on me that what I am enjoying is actually their struggle to survive. The need to fuel the constant movement that keeps them warm. their constant vulnerability to cats and other predators that stalk and hunt them, mocks my search for the right word or anxiety about meeting some kind of trivial deadline.

Every day I watch the birds and they keep a wary eye on me as I stand at the window. And the fluttering on either side of the glass is really nothing more than the work of getting up and going on.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at

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