The last batch of this summer’s fledglings arrived at the feeders last week, seeming even younger and less ready than their predecessors from earlier in the summer.

To the casual observer they look like adults, but they’re clumsy and not quite certain of themselves. When they perch, they flex, and the gray-white pinfeathers that were all they had just a couple of weeks ago poke out from the inadequate cover of their new grown-up plumage.

There’s a higher than normal incidence of small feathered bodies hitting the kitchen windows as they launch themselves from bird feeders and bushes; like other adolescents, they’re still learning, still trying on this new role, and their judgment is sometimes lacking. Ready or not, they’re on their own now, finding their way in the world.

I worry especially about the newly-launched hummingbirds, still growing and looking terribly vulnerable. They’re  so young that they lack the distinctive ruby-colored feathers at their necks, but in the next few weeks they’re faced with an epic journey south and across the Gulf of Mexico. How many of them will live through it to return here next spring?

It’s hard for youngsters of all sorts, human as well as avian, to leave the nest; it’s a tougher climate than usual for both. I suspect that parental birds forget their offspring as soon as they’ve taken wing, but our nature is to worry about our children for as long as we have breath.

We have to have faith, both in our children (and, ahem, in their upbringing) and in God’s care for them. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” asks Jesus in Matthew  10:29-31. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller


Back to the birds

After an unseasonably warm period that had the unwary narcissus bulbs on the hillside poking up fresh green spikes, real winter settled in.

The long-term effect on my daffodils and jonquils remains to be seen, but the effects on the local avian population were immediate: there was a rush on the bird feeders.

These now number four: the (in retrospect) absurdly small one that I first bought and the family-or-flock-sized model that immediately followed it, both of them for sunflower seeds; the nyjer seed feeder for finches; and the little suspended cage that holds a slab of seedy suet.

My flock has grown considerably from the original little group of chickadees, titmice and cardinals. The regulars now include house finches in red and brown, two sweet, pert wrens, a pair of downy woodpeckers and a (comparatively enormous) red-bellied woodpecker. One day a flock of blackbirds landed with all the subtlety of a motorcycle gang; they hung around for a while, giving the little birds the skitters, and then flew off again.

I find myself setting up my work in the kitchen so I can see the songbirds as they figure out the setup, swooping in together, rushing off for no discernible reason. On the shelf under the bay window crouches an even more avid birdwatcher, Iris the Orange Menace, whose tail muscles must have strengthened considerably recently from nearly nonstop lashing. The birds pay her no mind: among the things they’ve figured out is that the cats cannot get to them.

The suet cake is gradually disappearing, entirely pitted and with eroding corners. The nyjer seeds seem to be the exclusive province of a pair of male goldfinches. The sunflower seeds disappear faster than cashews in a bowl of mixed nuts; the giant bagful in the garage will never get us through the winter.

I worry a little that I’ve set up a welfare state for birds; what did they do before we opened an all-you-can-eat buffet? Some naturalists, after all, condemn any feeding of wild creatures, which gets in the way of Darwin’s survival of the fittest.

But we shape the world with every choice we make, with everything we do or don’t do. Horses survived even though deer are more adapted to their territory, because human beings found them useful; grains produce more bounteously after millennia of deliberate selection. I choose to feed songbirds: I hope to help beauty.

— sbm

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A bird’s-eye view

The other day, on a whim, I bought a bird feeder. Then, of course, I needed something from which to hang it.

That something turned out to have two hooks, so I bought a second bird feeder, and a bag of sunflower seeds, and a bag of tiny black nyjer seeds, because finches like them. I planted it all outside the bay window in the kitchen, just as the early autumn dusk set in.

It took almost a day for the birds to discover the new set-up. The first, in late afternoon, were a trio of black-capped chickadees, who each swooped in, grabbed a seed, and swooped back out.

The next morning, a tiny tufted titmouse dined daintily as I watched. And this rainy afternoon, an otherwise gray and dreary day was brightened by the appearance of a gang of goldfinches clad in winter olive drab, along with the now-ubiquitous chickadees and titmice, and enough cardinals to populate the infield at Busch Stadium.

These are birds I recognize; the cardinals have been a cheery presence all along. But we’re already seeing species that hadn’t been habitues of our particular piece of hillside, and we have the opportunity to see them all at a different setting, in a different light.

My daughter recognized the chickadees’ song, but had never realized what kind of bird produced it. I’d never seen a titmouse in our yard before; now they’re already at their ease, recognizing that the people (and cats) behind the glass are not a threat.

Sometimes it takes a very small change to help us view the world from a different, happier angle. Watching a titmouse – with his little crest, his neat gray coat accentuated by the reddish tinge down his flanks, and bright black eyes watching me back – I was filled with an inexplicable sense of joy: What hath God wrought!

— sbm