I’ve become an amateur, backyard birdwatcher during the pandemic. Last spring, I bought a tiny field guide and spent a lot of time on my porch, staring at the branches of the crab-apple tree that covers my front windows. I learned that I have a ton of Carolina Wren neighbors (who liked to sneak onto the porch itself until Franny terrified them away from our eaves). There’s a pair of chickadees, too, who always give me a thrill when they show up, and the cardinals love to chase each other. The woodpecker that hangs out on my block is such a ringer for his animated cousin, Woody, that I laugh every time I hear him and glance up to see a cartoon playing out in the tree above.
Then there is the neighborhood red-tailed hawk, who we like, and the resident wake of turkey vultures, who we do not. (Did you know that a group of vultures is called a “wake”? Well, that’s true only when they’re all perched in a group up in the trees or, here in my neighborhood, on the giant transmission towers that ferry the power lines cross the walking trails. It’s because they’re all sitting around, heads hanging as if they were in mourning, apparently.) I know all the reasons to appreciate vultures – they’re better than rats, they efficiently dispose of roadkill, etc., etc., etc.- but I still hate them.
It’s been a long winter. Here in North Carolina, the birds never really leave entirely, but over the last couple of weeks I have still been able to sense the presence of their return. I hear the wrens outside my window before my morning alarm. The bluebirds and cardinals were going crazy in the woods, feasting on worms, I suppose, after the week of rain.
And on a long walk yesterday, I saw a bird that I didn’t recognize. I’m still a bird-watching newbie, so that really doesn’t mean much in the grand scope of things, but it still made me excited. That bird is YELLOW! My brain flipped through its tiny repertoire of known birds: not a wren, not a chickadee, not a cardinal, not a finch, DEFINITELY not a woodpecker. I filed the shape and shade of the tiny little thing away, kept going on my walk, and by the time I got home, I’d forgotten about it.
But this morning, I heard the birds singing me a good morning song, again. I took the dog out and noticed them already up and at ’em, fully engrossed in their day’s packed schedule of singing, swooping, snacking and, you know, busily being BIRDS.
I came inside and picked up the field guide. Small bird, shades of yellow, here in North Carolina.
A PINE WARBLER! It lives in the tops of pine trees, eating bugs, caterpillars and spiders from the bark. Very vocal.
I’m reading The Wild Way of Jesus in morning prayer during this season, and all this talk about neighborhood birds is reminding me of an interview with the author, Anna Lisa Gross, on the Dunker Punks Podcast that I had the pleasure of hosting. Anna Lisa said, in that interview, that we need wilderness – maybe now more than ever. But she also assures us that we don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to immerse ourselves in wilderness: “It’s not practical and it’s not necessary to go out beyond places where there are roads or where there is wifi just to get into the wilderness. I think we can do that in our own lives.”
She invites us to “tune into what is living in our own neighborhoods. What’s alive in an empty lot or in that strip between the sidewalk and the street, or what is growing up through cracks in the pavement?” Anna Lisa picks up trash in her neighborhood as a spiritual practice, which she sees as “pledging allegiance in a small, prayerful way to the myriad living creatures in my city, on my block.” “I don’t even understand more than the tip of the iceberg of who is living on my street,” she says, noting that humans and squirrels and semi-stray cats take up a lot of space but are only the very beginning of the incredible diversity of LIFE and creation on any given block.
So, I’m paying more attention to the birds on my block. I was doing it before Lent began, but I appreciate Anna Lisa’s invitation to see this practice as a way to enter into the wilderness, even if the wilderness, for me, looks like a very infrastructure-rich suburban neighborhood trail that skirts power lines and busy streets.
The birds *fascinate* me. They live entire lives right in front of my nose, and I barely notice. We’re neighbors; the least I can do is learn their names.
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?