May 11, 2009
The word is out among the avian population that I’ve added safflower seeds to the feeders.
That’s the only way I can explain it—the feeding frenzy that starts at dawn and proceeds unabated, rain or shine, until the three feeders are empty.
Most of the familiar rules of the bird world seem to have broken down, cast to the wind like dandelions gone to seed. Size doesn’t matter, nor species. Nor does it appear to matter what type of beak a bird has or his officially-recognized, preferred method of feeding. With safflower seeds on the menu, each bird maintains his place at the feeder with the single-minded focus of a diner at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Nuthatches rub shoulders with finches. Chickadees bump wings with cardinals. A downy woodpecker feasts cheek-to-cheek with a towhee. A bluejay flies in with an awkward squawk. A momentary flutter ensues before the mixed regiment resumes its mission, swiftly as if an arriving senior officer has barked “at ease.”
Natty in his red skull-cap and striped tuxedo jacket, a red-bellied woodpecker clings to the bottom of one feeder, craning his neck up and over the edge to nab safflower seeds out of the tray. Smaller seeds flee from his bill in a golden-hued wake. At one point this morning, he is joined by both a male and female downy woodpecker, and a pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks. The five birds create a tableau in black and white and red that brings to mind Japanese artwork. The perfection of a red bridge arching over a still pond. The white rim of a porcelain cup containing black tea.
What’s black and white and red all over, I think. Which isn’t, strictly-speaking, an accurate depiction of the birds. They are mostly black and white. And yet the artful addition of red on head and nape and throat, the very spareness of its use, conveys a novelty that attracts and holds my eye. Not unlike the accessory that sets off an outfit, making a whole somehow more than the sum of its parts.
Along the porch railing, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice and house finches are queued like restaurant-goers awaiting the next available table. First they’re joined by a male hairy woodpecker. Then a red-winged blackbird arrives, gold-rimmed and scarlet wing bars blazing. He alights on the eave above the smaller birds, and surveys the proceedings with the equanimity of a drill sergeant inspecting recruits. For several seconds, nobody moves. The blackbird chirps twice, then lets out a long whistle. As if in response to direct orders, the red-bellied woodpecker flies off, along with a nuthatch and a house sparrow. Several of the birds-in-wait hop down onto the feeder and begin to eat.
There’s a feast-day festival atmosphere in the air. Everyone dressed in his or her party-best. The sparrows eat very primly, never spilling a seed. The nuthatches with lusty abandon. The chickadees take one seed at a time, and then flit-flit to the edge of the gutter, where they tap it on the metal until it cracks.
When an indigo bunting arrives, the beauty of the bird is a shock. The rising sun lends an opalescent sheen to his bluer-than-blue feathers, as if a translucent film from the inside of an oyster shell has been laid over the bird’s back. It occurs to me that all other blues are mere knock-offs by comparison. An indigo bunting’s feathers are to blue what a goldfinch’s are to yellow.
Before I spent time with these birds, I’m not at all sure I knew how to see color. Color that transcends any word invented to describe it. I was too busy assigning labels. Watching birds, I was generally too busy naming names to really see them.
Words, I’ve found, often get in the way of vision.
Of course I still do it, I reassure myself and regale others with the names of the birds I’ve identified. As if bird-watching were a form of trophy hunting and all about me. Along with most of my glances out the kitchen window there’s an accompanying chatter in my mind: Is that a rufous-sided towhee? Or a black-headed grosbeak? I wish I could get rid of those brown-headed cowbirds. My goodness, what bird is THAT?
Lately, however, I’ve turned down the volume on the narrative, if not yet turned it off entirely. I attempt to watch the birds without counting them or naming them or presuming to know anything about them whatsoever.
The exercise has become for me a meditation wrapped in a prayer.
St. Augustine wrote: “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”
When I watch the birds, I believe I see God’s skin: mosaic multiformity, unquenchable plenitude.
Covenant in flight.