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Uncle Sam: Finding meaning in a bird feeder

Many of us would like nothing more than respite from the realities of vitriolic politics, a pandemic and the taxing demands of day-to-day affairs. These actualities serve to deracinate us from ourselves and the nuances of our surroundings. Instead, they plug us into a terrain of constant fear and detachment. In modern times, an agenda of reconnection is paramount, and, for me, a key mode of reconnecting with myself and the moment has been watching birds.

Putting it nicely, I am a mediocre birder. My mom endeavored to impart a certain aptitude at seeking and identifying birds in me when I was young, but the person I strove to be then was too cool for hobbies like bird watching. It took the boredom engendered by the pandemic to galvanize me into venturing into the world of hobbies I’d once dismissed.

So, on a cold December day, I translated my nascent curiosity about birding into action. I bought a platform bird feeder (the cheapest I could find), some black oil sunflower seed (the dominant response to a Google search of “what is the best bird food?”) and a shepherd’s hook on which I could suspend it all. With a hammer, I drove the hook into the rigid earth of my back yard. I attached the feeder, filled the seeds, replaced the hammer and shut myself in my warm home for the remainder of the night.

Then came the feeder’s first morning: no birds. Same for the second and third. I despaired at the thought of losing money on my investment into the feeder, hook and seed. Wondering how birds locate their sustenance, back to Google I went. Turns out the species for which my presentation was a candidate generally seek their sources of food by sight – maybe it’s not visible enough, I thought.

But finally, on the fourth morning, I spotted a pair of cardinals – one of those birds of iconic status that even most laymen can identify. The brilliantly crimson male ate first, followed by a cream-colored mate. Their sojourn at the feeder was short-lived – they had vanished before I could grab my binoculars.

But for several dawns in a row thereafter, the pair returned. I thought about naming them, but I decided against doing so out of fear of what would happen should they cease to come – I had no intention of being a victim of my attachment. Certainly not to a bird.

But as my days in isolation passed, the cardinals kept coming. I began to take more and more comfort in watching them – their interactions, their jittery alertness, their frenzied feasting. One morning, after a large snow, I peered outside to spy a group of small birds congregated at the feeder. After consulting a guidebook and my mom, I determined them to be house finches. Shortly after, the cardinals returned. And then a smattering of juncos on the ground picked at the seeds that had fallen during the pecking of the other birds.

I was utterly fascinated. I don’t know how long I sat and watched the birds come and go, feed and rest on that enchanting morning. I was delighted to neglect my phone, to ignore the news, to elude my anxieties and the rest of the world for a moment. Someone watching me may have concluded I wasn’t doing anything. But the cogitation occurring in my mind negated such a superficial analysis: indeed, I was reconnecting with nature and my own existence within it.

Since that morning, I still set aside time to watch the birds. The cardinals have continued to appear. Again employing the help of my guidebook, my mom and Google, I have also seen and identified goldfinches, chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays and house sparrows at the feeder. When I watch the birds, I gleefully yet deliberately disconnect from most externalities. But the benefits of this disconnection are eclipsed by those of a reconnection to nature and myself – a process from which we all could benefit.

So, if the pandemic and political turmoil have left you uncentered and in need of a solid grounding, consider buying a bird feeder. The birds and their explosive flashes of vivid color are visually delightful. Moreover, the bird’s intrepid search for food, reliable reappearance at the place of its discovery and nuanced social behaviors can teach us much about ourselves, too. 

Sam Smith is a senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.  

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