Judgments at the feeding station
By Scott Schultz
The story about a little girl’s favorite songbirds is a parable told to me many times and which I’ve often repeated.
In it, an aging man and his young granddaughter are looking at the bird feeders outside of the little girl’s house.
“Which of those colorful birds are your favorites?” the grandfather asked.
“The sparrows,” answered the little girl.
“But the sparrows’ feathers are so drab,” the grandfather responded. “Don’t you think the orioles, cardinals, goldfinches, hummingbirds and blue jays are much prettier?”
“Yes, those birds are prettier,” the little girl said. “But those birds leave here when fall comes, and they don’t come back until spring. The sparrows always stay here for me.”
The sparrows always have been there with me, just as they always were for the girl in the story. They have been the Regular Joes of the songbirds’ society; those born to this earth without fanfare, and who live without fanfare and who leave without fanfare.
Those sparrows have been part of my life from the start, my earliest memories of them skittering around the gravel in front of our Veefkind farm’s two-story wooden granary. There, I watched them miserly pick each kernel of spilled oats from our driveway’s red-amber crushed granite.
I’ve watched sparrows use their make-do instincts no matter the rural environment, their subsisting everywhere from tamarack swamps to haymows, machine sheds and abandoned houses. They fill their stomachs from a long list of plants and surfaces, high and low. I’ve seen their nests in every rural nook and cranny.
Eaves with a loose board. Turns in gambrel barn-roofs’ rafters. Holes that woodpeckers hammered into trees. Old bluebird houses. The tell-tale dangling of nested hay, straw or long grass from those places and many more have told me stories about sparrows’ survival abilities.
Sparrows have reflected for me the best of what people can be in the countryside – that attitude of doing things efficiently and with little flair.
Even with all those anthropomorphic positives I can give to sparrows, however, they also reflect humans’ negatives.
I watch sparrows descend on the newly filled bird feeders; the wealth to them comparable to the bowels of my old Veefkind farm’s granary soon after our oats was harvested. There is plenty for all, giving them opportunities to sate their hunger on many seeds so carefully selected to attract songbirds of many shapes, sizes, colors and sounds.
It’s at the feeders that I see their worst human-like traits, crowding and shoving each other though the bounty is so plentiful.
It’s there that I watch them swish their beaks into the seeds, flicking to the ground piles of seeds they’d readily devour when food is scarce. In that bounty, their efficiency and social decency shifts to rudeness, selfishness, gluttony and waste.
Having plenty apparently tends to change otherwise-decent creatures that way, I suppose. Poor instincts often lie within the hearts of those that have such good instincts.
While I watch the sparrows’ bad sides exposed at the feeders, I notice a cardinal garnishing the grass beneath the feeder like a cherry tomato riding a lettuce salad’s lush green. Beside him are two mourning doves, all three seemingly happy to casually peck at what the sparrows wasted to the ground. The cardinal and doves eat in harmony and in silence, but for an occasional coo from one of doves.
An oriole rests cautiously on the edge of a tray, the bird’s neon orange glowing with each quick dip for a taste of the energy-giving jelly on the tray. The oriole departs after taking a couple bites, then leaves to be replaced by another, and then another – the orioles, though territorial, seeming to know detente in sharing their feeding habits.
Nearby, four lemon-yellow goldfinches perch on the thistle-seed feeder, seemingly unaware of each other as they quench their appetites.
The birds whose brightness has signaled distrust and lack of dependability act without selfishness.
The birds whose lack of brightness has signaled trust and dependability act with selfishness.
I’m somehow not surprised by seeing that. Songbirds, it turns out, are difficult to judge by their feathers and their circumstances.
Maybe that means I’m not meant to judge them, and instead accept them for what they are. I’ll give that a try and, along the way, pay attention to the good in all of them. I’ll see whether I can learn from that good to help make the countryside a better place to live.