In Praise of Chickadees

It’s a hot, sunny August morning, and there is probably something else I could be doing, but instead I’m sitting in the sun-room, watching the ruby-throated hummingbirds at the feeder.  There are at least two:  a male, and then one or more juvenile/female-plumaged ones, which could be his offspring or mate.  I think offspring, because he keeps driving them away. There is another feeder, around the corner, situated to be seen from the kitchen window, and occasionally the male flies off to patrol it, letting the juvenile beeline in to feed.

In mid-August, other birds are beginning to appear, landing on the feeder pole and investigating all the arms, looking for the seed feeders they know were there last winter.  Chickadees and goldfinches, mostly, and the occasional blue jay.  We’ll put the seed feeders back up October first; there is plenty of wild food around for these birds, including the sunflowers planted along our fence.

I’ve walked on every continent on Earth to see birds, and I’ve seen literally thousands of species. Some stand out over others:  the Adele penguins on the Antarctic peninsula; Siberian cranes on the Yangtze wetlands in winter; the California Condors over Big Sur; the huge, shy, Great Argus of the Malay peninsula.  I’ve birded in places you wouldn’t think there would be birds:  in the heart of Paris, on the hills above Hong Kong, in downtown Buenos Aires.  I’ve seen the wonder of the sandhill and snow goose migration on the Platte in March; the dance of prairie chicken on the hills at dawn, the mating flight of woodcock in the wet fields at the edge of our village.  But while these have been wondrous, and I am filled with nothing but gratitude and awe that I have been able to see them and so much more, nothing quite makes me smile like a chickadee.

They are such cheerful, curious optimists.  Yes, I know this is anthropomorphism.  Yet there they are in August, landing on the feeder poles, buzzing their questioning chick-a-dee-dee-dee.  If I go out, they won’t fly away; I’ve had them land on me in the garden as if I were a moving tree.  On a minus twenty February morning, as soon as the light begins to filter through the darkness, they’ll be there.  If the feeders are empty, believe me, they tell us, and they’ll fly around my head while I fill them, landing on the hanging feeders before I’ve even put them up again.  The cats – who are strictly indoor cats – sit at the windows and chatter, tails lashing.  When the chickadees come to sit in the bushes under the sun-room windows, Pye and Pyxel are balls of pent-up, frustrated energy.  (But can these two catch the odd white-footed mouse that finds its way into the house?  Of course not.  They are the cat equivalent of armchair quarterbacks.)

Last fall, after major abdominal surgery, and through the weeks of recovery, further treatment and more recovery, the bird feeders – or more precisely the birds at them – were one of my joys.  Prior to my weeks off work, I’d only been able to watch the feeders on weekends once daylight savings time ended, since I left for work in the dark and got home in the dark, and weekends were inevitably filled with chores and errands, so we got brief glimpses here and there of what we were feeding. Sunday brunches were the only times we’d really get to watch.

To focus my watching, I signed up for Project Feederwatch, through Cornell University.  A huge, on-going citizen science project, my part in it was to watch the feeder for at least part of two consecutive days a week, and record the species and numbers I’d seen.  It was great fun, as well as being informative and producing a few surprises, like the flock of nineteen wild turkeys who appeared mid-morning every day to pick up the seeds scattered by the small birds.  More than that, though, for the weeks before my surgeon permitted me to drive, and the weeks before BD felt comfortable letting me go for a walk on my own, it was my daily connection to nature, to the change of the seasons and the living, breathing, wild world.

It was also two other things: community and intellectual stimulation.  One of the things I worked on during my weeks ‘home alone’ was about creating, or rather recreating, both of these, in a different form than they had taken before. My friends were hugely supportive, driving me to doctor’s appointments before I could drive myself, taking me out for lunch, just visiting.  BD, of course, was there evenings and weekends. But I was used to a work environment, where there was always someone who needed to talk to me, or I needed to talk to, in person, by phone, by e-mail, and there was always a problem to be solved, a situation to be mediated, new hardware or software to be reviewed, tested, analyzed.  And so I set out to recreate a smaller version of that – I didn’t want the constant interactions; even at work I had long ago learned to close my door, or drive out to the furthest site I was responsible for, to find some solitude and thinking time. Nor did I want to pursue anything that looked like the work I had been doing – it was a vocation, not an avocation, and I knew I was retiring.  But I did need to use my mind, and to talk to people. All the edits on Empire’s Daughter were done, so the frequent e-mails to and from my editors had ended.  The new book was just an outline, and on my best day I can only write for about three hours.  I was determined to find other ways to use my mind and be connected to people, and I was, temporarily, housebound.

By finding a place in on-line communities – not just through Project Feederwatch but through other means (which perhaps I’ll write about another time) – I satisfied both the need for interaction and the need for intellectual stimulation.  Everything I worked on last winter was time-limited; I knew that once I’d recovered, I’d likely want to spend less time on these projects; I can sign up for Project Feederwatch again this winter, or not, depending on how we decide to spend the winter.  But the project gave me more than either community or intellectual stimulation, and perhaps this last thing is the most important.

I’ve been watching birds for about forty-five years, but this was the first chance -or at least the first opportunity I’d taken – to watch in a different way; to watch the details of how the birds interacted with each other; to sort out the apparent pecking orders within and among species; to note the fine differences between how a chickadee and a goldfinch picks up seed.  I learned to identify specific birds through minor variations in plumage, and I studied the gradations and differences that sorted out the species of redpolls, before the boffins decided, on the basis of DNA, that they’re all one species, regardless. Just when I’d got good at it, of course.

Learning to watch the birds differently, paying attention differently, is a distillation of much of what I have been working towards – to be more mindful of what is important to me, to slow down and see, to live here, now, understanding the landscape and ecosystem and community in which I live and am part of.  T.S. Eliot said it far better than I ever could, in his magnificent poem Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Perhaps I have just begun to know chickadees.

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