Musings: The Benefits Of Birdwatching

Each morning, I watch the birds at the feeders from the kitchen window. There are large birds (Blue Jays, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, cardinals) and small birds (titmice, nuthatches, finches, sparrows, chickadees, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers). Doves (mostly Mourning and the occasional Ringneck) mill around on the ground, looking for scattered seeds. And while I watch those birds going about their business, I’m not thinking about the pandemic, the climate crisis, ongoing destruction of the environment, or the many social issues we’re facing; instead, I am enthralled by bird life.

While it may not seem significant or important to be distracted from the day-to-day doom and gloom, I revel in the moments where I’m not wondering what species of animal has most recently been extirpated by human activity or which people will become the next climate (or political) refugees.

As the doves have their brief – and largely ceremonial – territorial skirmishes, the woodpeckers creep up tree trunks as they eye the suet feeders, and the finches flutter around the tube feeders until a perch opens up, I’m – briefly – not worrying about the world or the future. I’m (momentarily) not wondering if “forever chemicals” are in the tap water or in the soil…or how it affects the wildlife, like the birds.

It feels like it’s become enormously challenging to be present in moments like these: intrusive thoughts lurk in the periphery, threatening to spoil moments that will never come again. I know I must be present or miss the opportunity.

Watching the birds reminds me that though humans have complicated their lives immeasurably in our pursuit of “progress”, wild animals are clear about their priority…and it is survival. The birds spend much of their time looking for food, and some looking for mates, raising young, resting, or evading predators. They could care less about how popular they are on social media or whether their new car causes envy – they want to appear attractive to other birds, attentive enough to spot a predator before it can pounce and strong enough to fly away, and find enough sustenance to live another day. They seek shelter from the elements and safety while they sleep.

It’s clear that simplicity has its own rewards but, realistically, how many people could (or would want to) live a life focused on survival, where a full belly and secure shelter would be enough? Where we’re not ceaselessly comparing ourselves to others, making judgments and being judged based on curated (and arguably phony) images? Most of us have removed ourselves so far from subsistence living that we probably can’t even fathom it.

A tree full of tiny birds (likely sparrows) reminds me that there are more important pursuits than stockpiling money or boosting one’s ego. What do the birds care? They don’t. They’re just happy that we spring for the premium wild bird seed with the cherries and peanuts, and that the suet smells like a nutty candy bar (but it’s really just beef fat and nuts, no sugar added). And in exchange for the bird “tv”, we’ll gladly keep the feeders and water dishes full.

Immerse yourself in nature and reap the benefits…and remember that the birds are struggling to survive. It’s estimated that nearly 3 billion breeding age birds have been lost since 1970 – find the 2019 study and tips for how to help birds here.

Also, check out this inspiring story about how one individual found a way to help swifts.