For the Birds Radio Program: Birthday 2004
Today is the day I turn fifty-three years old. There isn’t a whole lot a person can say about being 53. Last year I could finally claim to be operating with a full deck, at least in the numerical sense, and now I’ve apparently added a joker. Most birds never make it to 53 except parrots, and maybe eagles in captivity. I’ve lived 10 years and 7 months longer than the oldest wild American bird on record, a Laysan Albatross that made it to 42 years, 5 months, and whether I deserve it or not, I’ve lived 40 years 7 months longer than the oldest known Black-capped Chickadee. I’ve also lived three years longer than my father did, and as I watch my sister’s steady decline from metastasizing breast cancer, hoping against hope that she’ll make it to her 50th birthday in February, I feel a deep gratitude for but a weird humility about every day I’ve been given. Do I really deserve more days than Christopher Reeve was given? But even with some essential and ugly unfairnesses that plague us, this is a pretty little planet we find ourselves on, and I feel lucky indeed to spend any time at all on it.
But how do we use those days? We humans may sometimes agonize over whether we spend our time well enough to justify the gifts we receive, but birds seem to know better than to waste their days with such anxiety. Some birds do things for the greater good—Blue Jays planted oak forests as fast as glaciers retreated, woodpeckers excavate holes that other birds and mammals will later use for their own homes, birds of prey keep rodent numbers in check, chickadees allow warblers and other migrants to associate with their flocks like little welcoming committees that help the new guys on the block find food and shelter and help detecting dangers. A flock of California Gulls saved a Mormon colony from starvation by gobbling up the grasshoppers that had descended on their crops.
But birds don’t seem to need to justify their existence through these benevolent activities—that’s just what they do. I love reading accounts of altruism in birds, such as the cardinal who spent several weeks feeding goldfish in a pond, or the screech owl that incubated flicker eggs and nestlings. I don’t have the certainty that some people do that tells them that these birds were simply operating out of instinct and not doing these things benevolently, nor do I have any certainly that the birds were doing it out of intentional kindness. It’s one of those lovely little mysteries that keep me spending my days in wonder at this extraordinary planet.
I know other people my age who feel rather worn out, turning into homebodies and losing interest in or becoming fearful of traveling. I’m indoors myself more than I’d like, spending more hours writing than experiencing all the things I want to write about. But even my familiar backyard birds do new and interesting things that keep me interested. This week my chickadees, who I haven’t fed by hand in a few months, started giving me long hard stares through the window, and one even alighted on the frame and tapped on the glass while looking straight at me, so I got up and dug out a few mealworms, cranked open the window, and within seconds the whole flock was back in full force, jumping on my hand just as they’d done back in May, obviously remembering me as a trusted friend, or at least an easy source of delectable morsels. Of all the birds in the world, chickadees are the ones I most aspire to be like, with their cheerful exuberance in the face of blizzards, thunderstorms, and anything else the natural world doles out.
Whether they live in blue or red states, chickadees woke up the morning after the election just as cheerful as they’d have been if the other guy won, living their lives the way they know they should, without judging other people or birds, without worrying about world or national events, yet somehow making the nation and the world a little brighter by just their being themselves. Looking at the world through the bright and cheerful eyes of a chickadee makes 53 seem pretty darned young, and makes today seem less like yet another day closer to death and decay than a fresh, new, and happy opportunity to share some times with these dear little birds.