For the Birds Radio Program: Birding for the Soul: Attachment, Love, Community, and Chickadees
In 1992, Thomas Moore wrote a wonderful book, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. I’ve been rereading that book and Moore’s other works, and realizing that birding is most satisfying when I engage in it the way Moore recommends we engage in all our daily activities. He opens his introduction with these words: “The great malady of the twentieth century, implicated in all of our troubles and affecting us individually and socially, is ‘loss of soul.’” Moore explains that it is impossible to define precisely what the soul is, but that “When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars—good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. Soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy.”
If anything in my everyday life is connected to attachment, love, and community, that would be birding. I’ve been feeling the connection to birds in my personal community a lot this month. What with the cold weather, my neighborhood chickadees have been having a hard time finding enough insects to supply the needs of their growing nestlings, and the two that are nesting in my yard have been depending on me to supply them with mealworms. These particular chickadees haven’t fed out of my hand before, but they quickly figured out that I was setting out mealworms in a little feeder stuck onto my office window right next to my desk. Within a couple of days of my buying the first container of mealworms, they would stay in nearby branches as I filled the feeder. Then when they ran out, they started making little call notes outside the window as they stared at me through the window, to get my attention. Then one day one of them, I think the male, started getting impatient enough that the moment I cranked open the window he’d alight on my hand to grab a mealworm. Now whenever the feeder runs out, they both take several mealworms out of my hand and fly off to feed the babies. It’s a big responsibility knowing that not only these chickadees but also their tiny nestlings are relying on me.
Once my chickadees started to trust me, they quickly figured out that I’m the same person when I’m outside as I am at the window, so now they fly to me in the backyard as well, though they won’t go near anyone else in my family. But their trust of me is far from unconditional. If I were to try to grab one to put a leg band on it or do something else that betrayed their trust, they’d abandon me.
Chickadees may appear tame and friendly, but they’re far from stupid, and they aren’t wimps. Friends often joke with me about how well my chickadees have trained me, and that is certainly a valid way of looking at the relationships I’ve had with some of them. But the soulful attachment I have for chickadees and other birds, and the occasional way some of them come to trust me, are extremely satisfying in a deep, soul-enriching way that can’t be dismissed as simple training. I’d match the pleasure I get from meeting the eyes of my backyard chickadees and feeling them alight on my hand with pleasures that are far more costly. As Americans seem more and more to value people according to their income and celebrity, we’ve become more and more ironic and detached from the beautiful little things that enrich our souls more than our pocketbooks. In the coming weeks, I’m going to focus how we can enjoy birds in soul-enriching ways.