Sam Cook column: This show runs daily, just outside the kitchen window
The simple joy of observing birds at a backyard feeder is immense.
We hung the bird feeder a couple weeks ago. The juncos and chickadees and nuthatches showed up right away, as if to say, “What took you so long?”
Like a lot of birders around here, we don’t feed the birds during the summer months. Two reasons: One, they seem to find plenty of sustenance from natural sources, and two, black bears. Unless you are especially ingenious in feeder engineering, a bear will inevitably lumber up and pulverize it so he or she can lie on the ground and snarf up the spoils. So, we wait for hibernation.
The juncos spend most of their time working the ground beneath the feeder. The chickadees and nuthatches work the feeder itself, perching on rests and probing openings for the seeds.
I cannot tell you why it is so satisfying to simply watch songbirds go about the business of acquiring calories, but every birder knows it’s true. The birds hop and flit. They come swooping in at high speed for perfect landings. They feed right-side up and upside down. They sort out apparent pecking orders. They disperse en masse at the slightest disturbance — any passing shadow could belong to a sharpshin.
Observing all of this coming and going is far more entertaining than sitting at an airport gate watching 737s lumber into the sky. These feathered pilots avert head-on collisions at the last split-second. They define perpetual motion — head-cocking, hopping, flitting, flapping, pecking, fleeing, alighting, confronting, avoiding, launching, clinging. All in the name of acquiring calories.
We humans think we are pretty cool. As athletes, we sprint and leap and dive. We slap pucks into nets, catch footballs and throw out base runners at home plate. We vault and hurdle and do mid-air flips. But watching birds at a feeder for even a few minutes serves to inspire a proper sense of humility about our human feats.
Birds are simply much more amazing.
Feeder observation, of course, does not even account for the varsity level of avian calorie acquisition in the wild. Have you ever watched an osprey plummet from the sky to claim a hapless sucker from a wilderness lake? Or a bald eagle swooping in to snatch a foundering walleye down the shore from your cabin? Have you watched a gathering of 50 or 60 Swainson’s hawks working North Dakota wheat stubble to gorge on grasshoppers?
I remember a bowhunter describing how he once watched a goshawk slicing through dense popples to nail a fleeing ruffed grouse in mid-air.
What we see at our feeders is just routine, everyday stuff by the humblest of creatures, and it’s still spectacular. I find myself standing at our kitchen window for long periods observing this daily performance.
What these observations inspire in many of us, I believe, is a measure of humility, a way to put our own lives in perspective. I would suggest it is not altogether so different from what astronauts have described upon gazing down at the Earth from a capsule drifting through space.
That’s a big return on a $20 bag of sunflower seeds.
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249 .