Every once in awhile in my reading I stumble upon a new trailhead with a path to a destination I’ve not been on before. I may tuck it away in my memory as something to try another time, but there are some words that are so intriguing that I find myself wandering up their paths without a second thought. This quote from Elizabeth Bishop is one such trail: “I’d like to retire…and do nothing, or nothing much, forever…look through binoculars, read boring books, old, long, long books, and write down useless notes, talk to myself, and, foggy days, watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.”
Just hours after copying those words in my commonplace book, I found myself on the couch in the living room, trying to squeeze in a bit of reading before a jumbled day of meetings and errands. The constant fluttering around the birdfeeder kept drawing my eye up from the page and I watched as the magpies and flickers bullied the flocks of house finches and chickadees away from the seeds and up into the apple tree where the smaller birds could only perch in frustration while the aggressors feasted on the bounty.
I laid my book aside and went to fetch my binoculars. I read a few more pages and then saw the magpies being chased off the ground by the chickens. Do the chickens realize the magpie sitting on the feeder is flicking great scatterings of seed on the ground for them? In between magpies and flickers, the swarms of chickadees, house finches, nuthatches, juncoes and a bird I didn’t recognize crowded the feeder and foraged on the ground. They made it look like the leaves had come alive in an unseen wind as they hopped about.
I went to fetch my bird book and then picked up my reading again, waiting for the mystery birds to return. A few more pages and there they were, savanna sparrows, a bird I had seen often enough, but never had a name for. A couple of squirrels made a foray from the trunks of the apple tree and cottonwood, freezing every time they caught a hint of movement that might be the dog. They were tentative around the chickens who ignored them unless they got too close. Then the chickens turned and chased the squirrels off, looking like sumo wrestlers as they waddled after the offenders.
I glanced at the clock. It was too late to make it into town for my meeting. I called to let them know I wasn’t coming and returned to the couch. Suddenly the whole day lay ahead of me, with nothing that couldn’t be put off until tomorrow. Could I really spend the day doing nothing but reading and watching the little dramas playing out at the feeder? I recalled Bishop’s words. Maybe I could.
A downy woodpecker was dividing his time between the bark of the apple tree and the feeder. The mourning doves arrived in a flock of seven and foraged on the ground, flashing the white feathers of their tail like white-tailed deer as they soared over the fence.
Deep into my reading, it was awhile before I looked up again and then realized that I had missed a death. I saw the flicker tossing what looked like feathers out of the base of the feeder. So I went out to investigate. Sure enough there were half a dozen small downy gray feathers with white ends tipped with black. A couple more were still in the feeder tray. Had a hawk come down and snatched a small bird? I had watched last year as a hawk had grabbed a red-winged blackbird from the ground and then ripped it’s belly open, pulling out the entrails as if feeding on a plate of spaghetti. If it was a hawk, then surely my chickens were in danger. But they were clumped up under the ponderosas, scratching beneath the carpet of pine needles in search of grubs and I decided they were fairly safe under the net of needled branches.
It struck me as an odd coincidence that as this small unnoticed death occurred I was reading in my book, Sacred Paths and Muddy Places about death: “Ignore death and I would have to ignore life…Every moment of every day, something was born, something grew and something died and what died spawned the next seed of the next birth.”
Another new bird scavenged the seeds on the ground. This one had a red head, a dark eye mask, a red belly and white bars on the wings. It was smaller than the house finches who looked quite outsized next to it through the binoculars–a common red poll if my identification was correct. And I wondered because redpolls are not common at all in Montana. Digging a little deeper I discovered that the redpolls seemed to be migrating farther south than usual this year–an irruption across the northern states, much like the snowy owls last year.
It’s funny, I didn’t sit down with the intention to document what was happening at the feeder. I just sat down to be next to the fire and read for a moment. And then my eye got captured by the activity beyond the window. Captured and then captivated. I had no idea there was such an interplay between the various species that gathered to feast. And each new thing, the interaction between the magpies and the chickens, the flicker tossing feathers, the new birds, the red poll and the savanna sparrows, were unexpected discoveries, and a classic example of not trying to find something and so being delighted by the unexpected.
A sudden sqwauking from the branches of the apple tree and there were two flickers, sword fighting with their beaks, thrusting and parrying with flailings of wings. At last one flew off to the pines, the other in hot pursuit. Then the victor flew to the birdfeeder until the vanquished returned and he had to scare him off again. Peering through the binoculars at the feeding flicker I saw, just under his wing, the black and white tipped feathers. So it was a flicker fight after all, and not a death that left behind the scattering of feathers. So many little mysteries and such satisfaction in the solving.
In the evening, just as the last light drained out of the day and the glass doors became mirrors instead of windows, my husband walked into the room, asking what I had done all day. “Nothing,” I replied. “Nothing much all day.”