A Berkshire Journal: Feathered Friends

May 21, 2019 Updated: May 21, 2019

I’ve been waking up before the alarm goes off, lately. This happens every year around the time spring starts moving into summer. With the bedroom windows open to the cool night air, early morning birdsong slips between the curtains, tripping lightly across the room to the edge of my bed. It spirals around my head, then dips into the last chapter of a dream, closing it with a lively tune.

This morning, two goldfinches sat on the very lowest pegs of the bird feeder, which hangs off the eave at the window by my desk. On one side the male, with his bright yellow jacket and black trimmed sleeve-cuffs, was busy crushing seed in his beak. On the other, his less vibrantly feathered female counterpart flicked the last of the millet to the ground and pulled out what was left of the nyjer seeds. Now and then a brief peek around the feeder and a quick chirped remark, to acknowledge the presence of her mate.

When they were done, I took the chance to fill the empty cylinder again. This has been a source of endless frustration for the squirrel, whose feet can often be heard running back and forth on the roof. You can almost hear his busy brain at work as he thinks up all manner of creative measure to access the feeder. He has offered many a comedic interlude—he is not one to give up! I thought he would after one day, in a final exasperated attempt, he leapt off the eave grasping the slim top of the feeder, only to slide down the plastic tube and land on the ground two stories down, his flailing claws no match for the plastic. The little fellow has to be given an award for ultimate persistence!

The word that the feeder is full again gets out among the feathered crowd quickly. In no time, five chickadees have landed on the branch of a maple tree close by and are chattering in line while a group of dark-eyed juncos takes its turn on all six pegs. Higher up on another branch, a pair of tufted titmice turn their heads to keep an eye out for the next available spot.

I imagine there is never a dull moment for the maple, whose obliging branches have become the launching station for all dive-ins to the feeder. Day in and day out, the tree is partial to all manner of busy avian chatter: “Who’s next?” and “Hurry up, it’s my turn!” and to the blue jay, “Mind your manners! You’re not the only hungry one in town!” or, “So, how’s the nest coming along?”

The red-bellied woodpecker in his bright vermilion cap has also stopped in today. He hangs on clumsily at the feeder’s base, his black-and-white barred body far too large for the peg but nonetheless, determined to have his share. Just above him, the nuthatch is dealing with his own set of troubles, upside-down as usual. Being really more of an insect over-easy kind of guy, he must really be in need of breakfast, or he wouldn’t bother!

And so it goes all day in endless variety, teasing me out of my thoughts, when I glance up briefly from the page. So many little personalities in a sweet conversation of fluttering wings and busy beaks! Their important work of sustenance, a humorous intervention and my reminder to keep a light heart.   

Several years ago, this room was home to my friend, and sitting in a chair by the side of his bed, we would have tea and talk, while we watched them feed for hours.

He could name all the varieties, their preferred diet, individual song, and migratory habits. As we remarked one day on the graying “goatee” of a familiar aging house-sparrow, a red-tailed hawk swooped down in a flash of sturdy, brown wing feathers, which brushed the window as he picked our friend off of the peg. The other birds dispersed in a flutter of feathers and startled chirps as we watched the hawk fly off to land at the edge of the forest, pegging his catch with sharp talons to the remaining bare branch of the dead spruce where he had landed. By the time he began to eat his prey, the others had already returned. Tentatively at first, but in short order, back to business as usual. I was still absorbing what had just happened.

“There are costs,” my friend said, taking my hand, “when we interfere.”

My heart hung onto his words, and on the fine line that runs between doing what we think is a good thing and disrupting the natural order. It occurred to me how hard it is sometimes in a world where natural balance is off-kilter, to remember that when something is meant to go, it will go at some point, regardless of our efforts. He was himself—in a sense—a bird of passage.

By May I have usually stopped replenishing the feeder. Nature has fully thawed. Its early abundance is bursting with enough insects, seeds, and worms to provide for all manner of feathered diet.

But today, there is still enough seed for a few more fill-ups, in the old tin bucket at the corner. And the company of those that fly between the earth and heavens is pleasant and lively. Soon enough the bucket will be empty, and all will be left, in what degree it can be, to its natural order.

A red-winged blackbird flies after insects through the reeds at the edge of the woods. High above, a blackbird chases a hawk through the sky.

Cardinale Montano is a freelance writer living in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She shares her creativity with good friends, family, and eager learners, and celebrates daily the blessings of nature in the beautiful Berkshires. She is the founder and designer at LineflaxAndRoving.com