“Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
–Matthew 6:26, New King James Version (NKJV)
In the morning, the seeds are frozen to the feeder, little nibs of corn and sunflower seed and millet glazed with ice from last night’s sleet storm. I chip away, and they fall to the ground. They’re the leftovers, the scraps that prying beaks weren’t able to wrest free before sundown.
Once it’s dark, coyotes and fisher cats and raccoons haunt the wooded ridge behind our house, and the birds retire. When the first bands of dawn appear, they return, chirping and darting from branch to branch. In the dead of winter, I refill the feeder every morning. I jam blocks of sticky suet into the baskets hanging from the nearby hooks, too.
Watching the birds descend upon the food encourages me. These are tough times for birds. Recent studies indicate that North America has lost almost 3 million birds, representing hundreds of species, in the last 50 years, due to environmental destruction. With an act as simple as scattering birdseed, I feel I’m intervening—even in a small way—against the harsh elements that shape their short lives. I’m softening the blow.
Up and down our country road, and along thousands just like it, people are doing the same thing. Birds are big business. Wild bird food was estimated as a $5 billion industry in the U.S. in 2018. And while there are educational benefits derived from birdwatching, especially if you have young children, I can’t help think that this nurturing act taps into something more primal—our own desire for rescue, for deliverance in perilous times.
“Then God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with fish and other life.
Let the skies be filled with birds of every kind.’ ”
–Genesis 1:20-23, New Living Translation(NLT)
A natural history museum sits across the street from the university office where I work. The exhibits are rich and varied, supported by research from every scientific discipline across campus. It’s a favored field trip destination for local schools. There are dinosaur skeletons, a living ant farm, and sparkling crystal specimens with glowing cores.
My favorite exhibit is the taxidermy wild birds. Rows of shiny display cases present a cross-section of birds. The species are so diverse. Some are barely recognizable as the same genus. The red-tailed hawk and the diminutive ruby-throated hummingbird are frozen, side by side.
But the staged habitat dioramas against the walls tell a different story. They depict environments from woodlands to deserts to coastlines. Marvels of adaptation, birds are everywhere, the signage reads.
Wherever they live, though, I notice that they’re doing the same thing. The fight for survival unites them. A white egret stands, beak paused above the water, ready to strike at an unsuspecting fish. A robin tugs and twists a hapless worm from the ground. A delicate piping plover hides in tall lakeside grass as a racoon ambles by.
Big and small, they’re all on their own, struggling on, ever watchful, ever aware that their fortunes could change in a heartbeat. No seeds are scattered here.
“O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek to be consoled, as to console.
To be understood, as to understand. To be loved, as to love.”
—Saint Francis of Assisi
My husband and I traveled to Italy some years back. Among the towns we visited was Assisi, home of the famed Basilica of Saint Francis, a favorite saint of animal—and especially bird—lovers the world over.
The Basilica is a massive, two-level structure dating to 1253. It sits above the walled village, on a hillside dotted with olive trees. The crypt in the lower level is Francis’ final resting place. Other monks are entombed there, as well, but Francis is the big draw. My husband and I joined a stream of visiting pilgrims making their way down a narrow staircase to the crypt.
Underground, silence fell. Votive candles flickered in darkened corners. The ceiling was low, inlaid with ribbons of gold and metal and painted hosts of winged angels. A cement box holding Francis’ remains sat atop a platform in the middle of the space, a stone block wall encircling it. Rows of wooden pews filled a corner.
We sat down. Mumbled prayers and heavy sighs rose all around. Fingers clicked over rosary beads. An elderly man sat hunched, head buried in his hands. Folded bits of paper stuck out from cracks in the stone wall surrounding the coffin. I imagined their contents: pleas for intervention, for deliverance. So many of them, down through the centuries, and continuing today.
It’s a sacred act, a privilege, when we get the chance to intervene in prayers like these, whether they’ve been voiced or not. Every time we assist another creature—human or otherwise—through the pain of this life, even in a small way, we lighten our collective load. I think Saint Francis would surely have agreed. Living in the swirl of 21st century existence, it’s easy to forget. Feeding the birds reminds me.
The sun was blinding that afternoon when we emerged from the crypt into the bright light of day. As we made our way down to the village, birds flitted in the trees dotting the hillsides of this ancient place.