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Confessions of an Amateur Birdwatcher

illustration_from_birds_of_america_1827_by_john_james_audubon_digitally_enhanced_by_rawpixel-com_439.jpg

Illustration from Birds of America (1827) by John James Audubon / Wikimedia Commons

I’m afraid I’m becoming a birdwatcher. It all started innocently enough. Last year, I bought a cheap bird feeder from the hardware store and hung it from a low branch in the pine tree in my backyard. The sparrows soon came in little fluttering clusters, bonking around the red feeder like zany cartoon electrons. A small gang of pigeons followed; they would gather on the ground beneath, pecking at the castoffs and spillage, vamping and thugging. Then I thought the birds might enjoy some water, so I bought a bird bath. 

The situation ramped up considerably. Shy mourning doves began showing up to nervously sip water in the evening. A crow made the spot part of its regular rounds, bringing bits of cracker or bread to soften in the water. Right before sunset, a bird the color of fudge would show up to bathe, shimmying its entire body in the bowl of the bath, looking simultaneously exultant and slapstick. (I always imagine it making some sound of triumphant, bodily sensation — the brrrgh! of stepping into a cold shower.) After that, it would do short sprints across the lawn and leap and snap at bugs. Then I noticed a strange, stub-tailed bird with a beak like a yellow golf pencil, plodding and pecking methodically through the grass; in the light, its black feathers iridesce thrillingly in bands of violet and turquoise. And, of course, there are the ratchety, cantankerous mockingbirds who make themselves abundantly known, who do not deign to drink from the bird bath, but never hesitate to screech and dive-bomb me if I happen to trespass on their territory (or, as I discovered, if I go too near their babies fledging in the yard, camouflaged amid the wooden fence and landscape rocks). I bought a laminated  guide to the birds of Nevada, and began marking my sightings: The brawny, luxuriant bather looks like a female great-tailed grackle; the solitary forager with the yellow beak and secret iridescent coat seems to be a European starling. One highlight earlier this spring was seeing a Northern Flicker; it has cheeks streaked with red and a salmon-colored head that ends in a black, crescent-shaped bib.

But I knew my confirmation as an amateur birdwatcher was complete on a recent evening when I glanced out the kitchen window to be startled by a bright orange bird calmly perched at the bath. I ran through the house, looking for my phone, exclaiming “Ohshit ohshit ohshit!” until I found it and snapped a blurry pic of what I’ve determined is a Bullock’s Oriole. I texted it to my family with the same urgent, defensive fervor you might if you’d seen a UFO and wanted to prove you weren’t just seeing things. I began to rinse and fill up the bird bath twice a day, in the morning and the evening, and refill the feeder twice a week. I went from incidental watching at my kitchen window to sitting on the back patio with the decided intent of observing the birds.

Something else happened too. As my interest in the birds grew, our relationship changed. At first, they were scenery, little more than living decorative diversions. Soon, though, my relationship to them became one of service. They went from pleasing objects to distinct subjects, each with its own habits and personality. The act of submitting to what I perceived as their needs and desires revealed another kind of submission taking place — that of submitting my attention.

I was only being a little bit facetious when I wrote “I’m afraid I’m becoming a birdwatcher.” I’ve realized during this shutdown how anxiously averse I am to full, still attention during this fraught and delicate time. You’d think this grand moment of societal stillness would result in some invisible renaissance of clarified introspection. But no, at least not for me; I’m mostly streaming hella Netflix. Perhaps there’s a reason it’s called “streaming.” Perhaps the participial suggestion of motion in the word comforts us with the illusion that at least something is moving, even if it’s just the season finale of Too Hot to Handle. What's so scary about stillness?

By contrast, the attentional contract of watching birds is akin, if not identical, to that of reading. It states that I agree to suspend some parts of myself and temporarily submit to another's world with engaged purpose. I’m increasingly convinced that birdwatching is a form of reading, in both its process and its satisfactions. A friend recently gave me a pair of binoculars as a gift — a nice pair, nicer than I have any right to expect to own — and now every day after work, I post up on the back patio, sink into the stillness of dusk, and let the birds emerge. In a way, I feel like I melt into the background and become part of their scenery. My favorite is the doves. The doves always come last, and in the waning light of evening, they look like dusty porcelain marionettes, painted rose and soft gray. 

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