The birds at our table

Most days, my morning begins with a scolding.

I’m a creature of habit, so just as the last thing I do at night is check that doors are locked, the first thing I do each morning is put out the bird feeders. I can’t leave them out overnight because racoons prowl, pulling the feeders apart in order to get at the seed and suet. So, just a bit before dawn I fill our four feeders and walk out onto our deck where they will hang until nightfall. Usually, a few birds have already arrived, unhappy their breakfast isn’t ready for them. Chickadees have several distinct calls, but now from the magnolia tree they dee-dee-dee-dee sharply, displeased. It’s also the call they make when alarmed, like when a hawk swoops past the feeders hoping for an easy catch. The goldfinches are often waiting for me as well, perched on tiny linden branches at the edge of the woods. They scold me with a high-pitched note that rises like a question, repeated until I’ve hung the feeders and retreated back into the house. By the time I am inside and glancing out the window they are feeding.

When we first moved into the House Between, we attracted no English sparrows, but a neighbor’s hedge has prospered and so a few now appear at the feeders. Margie doesn’t like them, strutting and bullying, chirping the same unmelodious note over and over. Still, her heavenly father and theirs notices if any of them stumble (Matthew 10:29). Later in the day flocks of wild turkeys clean up the seed on the ground the smaller birds drop from the feeders. They enter the yard single file, in a row, half running, eyes straight ahead, looking like a flock of fierce Presbyterian elders, dressed in black and red-faced, solemn and sober.

I feed the birds because it is part of my faithfulness in ordinary things. Feeding wild birds is part of bearing God’s image since he is the one who provides them the food they need for their young (Job 38:41; Matthew 6:26). We have long believed in hospitality and have long believed that our call to it is not limited to human beings. It is also one small way we seek to care for God’s earth, that remains his and of which we are stewards who will one day be called on to give account. The Creator has not abandoned what he has made and someday, we are told, will in wrath destroy “the destroyers of the earth” (Revelation 11:18).

I discovered one more reason to feed the birds during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a lovely, quiet calming activity in an unsettled time. We have positioned the bird feeders so we can see them from the “Away Room,” a quiet spot with two comfortable chairs positioned so we can look out on the deck. It is where we have breakfast together, pray and plan our day. Watching the birds always amuses, and it quiets and soothes us. It’s always done that, I suppose, but it took the pandemic to make me recognize it.

The ancient Hebrew prophets identified a lack of quiet as a characteristic of the wicked (Isaiah 57:20). And stillness as the place in which we come to know our Creator (Psalm 46:10). Watching the birds removes me for a time from my world, inviting me into theirs. In the summer we can sit on the deck and be that much closer.

There is irony here, being in isolation because of COVID-19 and still needing calm. It turns out there is a difference between absence, of which I have too much and find disquieting, and having quiet in my soul, of which I have far too little. And there is another irony. The goldfinches, of which I am particularly fond, are fractious and uneasy, always squabbling and flittering about. They are seldom calm yet evoke calm in me. It is the sort of mystery that satisfies my deepest longing for meaning.

So, all told, I look forward to my morning scolding, a gentle reminder that fellow creatures are nearby, giving glory to God as he intended, and waiting on me to do the same. It’s a good way to begin my day.


Photo credit: Photo by Mary Hammel on Unsplash