Consider the Birds of the Air

Dr. Lindsey Scholl, (7th Grade Humanities & Latin Chair)

The feeder was hung by the window with care, with hope that the chickadees soon would be there. I watched and I waited to see what would descend. Maybe blackbirds, or finches, or sparrows on end. I took out my camera, and I waited and watched, with the focus well set and the lens clean of spots. When what to my wondering eyes came to view, but a bunting bright- painted in crayon-like hues.

I jest, but this happened. John and I really did have a feeder that we watched with anticipation. Often, our only guests were “LBJs” as one birder has called them: little brown jobs. These were usually sparrows, but sometimes a wren would join us. One glorious spring, a painted bunting arrived, brought its mate, and stayed through the summer. We felt chosen.

Our birding enthusiasm started small: a feeder stocked with Pennington’s Classic Bird Feed, a clean window, a field guide, and the fascination that comes with the ability to identify something you’ve seen countless times, but only on the periphery of your vision. Who knew that blue jays have heads that are shaped differently than those of bluebirds? Cardinals always travel in pairs. Wrens are quite small.

John and I are not the only birders in our community. There are birders among our administrators, our teachers, co-teachers, and even students. You can discover these enlightened souls in the following manner: take a suspected birder outside, preferably where there are some trees and ideally where you know there is natural activity. Place your back to the trees while you engage her in conversation. If her gaze drifts to the branches, you are dealing with a birder. If her eyes light up, and she is unable to focus on what you’re saying, she has just spotted something red and is certain it’s not a cardinal. At that point, you should give up the conversation and follow her gaze.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that a turkey was more occult and awful than an angel. Ancient observers would take omens from the flight of birds; these predictions were called auguries, and we have not yet taken our birding to this level. Our Lord told us to consider the birds of the air and then to live as worry-free as they do. The practice of birding is as classical as Aristotle and as Christian as Francis of Assisi, and I recommend it to any TCS family who likes to spend time outside. Actually, any family who likes to look outside.

I divide the advantages of birding into two categories: the quick pay-off and the long haul. First, the quick pay-off. If you are like me, you have paid birds no attention other than observing that a duck likes water and robins come out at spring. With a second look, you will begin to comprehend the variety of shapes and sounds that have formed the backdrop of your life. Those birds you hear at night while sitting at a stoplight? Those are Grackles. Those black shapes on the power lines in the spring are Grackles, (Houston has a lot of them), but also Starlings. That crazy bird you saw on the shoulder on your drive outside of Austin was a roadrunner. When you and your kids start putting names to faces, you will be instantly satisfied, yet curious to know more.

Once you get through the species you can recognize quickly and without binoculars, you start to experience the advantages of the long haul. You find yourself watching the bird feeder instead of the computer. You go out for a walk just to see what’s there. You take the kids for a drive to Edith Moore Bird Sanctuary, where you are certain you will see a turtle and might be blessed with a woodpecker. You pay attention to the seasons, not as dictated by Hobby Lobby, but as determined by the arrival of the goldfinches.

The great thing is that most of this applies to your children. Active children can enjoy the walks outside, where you will coach them to do their cartwheels more quietly so they don’t scare the birds. Those who love responsibility can carry the binoculars. Contemplative young ones can watch the sparrows at the feeder in the rain. In addition to the childlike joy of identification, they will also learn patience and wonder. Patience: not all birds are painted buntings. Wonder: some of them are.