Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dum Spiro Sparrow

I was not surprised to draw back the kitchen curtains to find birds all over my four backyard feeders. We were having our first snowstorm of 2012 and the first since the freak Halloween storm in October.

January 2012

The birds were fighting each other as much as they were eating. Within sight were three pairs of cardinals jockeying for position at the house feeder; at least one redbelly, downy and hairy woodpecker each taking turns at the suet; and a host of house sparrows, whitethroats, house finches and juncos at these and the other two feeders, with mourning doves below and a quick hit occasionally by a family of jays.

When the house sparrows hogged the feeder and kept chickadees, nuthatches or titmice out for too long, I’d go on the porch to spook them off so the others could feed. Thanks to one neighbor no longer filling his feeder and another who is slow to refill when his empties, I get a lot of visitors in my yard. I don’t mind this - feeding birds is my way of saying thanks for all the pleasure I get seeing these and others in the wild.

But the birds could care less about my so-called generosity. They are just trying to survive.

When they chase each other or sit at the feeders and open their beaks and hiss or spread their wings in an attempt to look bigger, they are trying to get what they can before it‘s gone. The birds that can’t get to the seed directly will go down to the squirrel baffle or to the ground and peck at the bits of seed dropped by the sloppy ones above. Some have even started imitating the woodpeckers and hanging under the suet feeder, an unnatural feeding position for, say, a sparrow.

It is evolution in action. Those that can adapt will survive.

Birds have lived and died without human help for centuries. That I happen to put out feeders is a bit of luck for the birds that consider my yard their territory, or that have stopped briefly on the way to someplace else.

This storm is not very bad compared with last winter, when we had many more storms and so much snow that stayed unmelted for so long the birds were desperate and I could not keep the feeders filled fast enough. Cardinals, usually quite placid birds, were shrieking at others once they were on the house feeder, the one of the four that can accommodate them. If you don’t eat, you don’t live.

It is the same with people.

As I stand in my warm house after a hot breakfast I am more than aware there are people who do not have a roof over their heads and can only eat through the generosity of houses of worship or the community organizations, some to which I donate money, that feed them.

I am also more than aware that in this crazy world we are living in, I and my neighbors are only one disaster away from being homeless and hungry, too.

A rare moment of peace in a life of toil.
 Many of us who lost our jobs have been searching for months, trying to find anything that can use our talents, frequently losing out to those - usually younger and more mobile, without the same ties of house payments and kids in school - who are willing to work for far less in salary.

Some of us are lucky enough to get a job but it is only temporary, because many big employers have discovered it is cheaper to rent an employee through a staffing company and not pay benefits than it is to put someone on staff. There are always enough people searching for work to hire when the contracted worker is forced to leave.

Some of us work in jobs that are becoming more oppressive. We are being told that suddenly, after many years there, we don’t measure up, and if we don’t work harder and longer and change what we’re doing we will face disciplinary review. We are forced to have weekly meetings with supervisors monitoring our “progress,” and may be told if we don’t accept a buyout we will be fired and get nothing.

This was the reason why the message of that ragtag bunch of kids that became Occupy Wall Street resonated with so many of us in mainstream America.

We are told from birth to work hard and save and we will be wealthy and happy. So we work and we are then told we need this and must have that and so must spend and don’t save and don’t think about old age and retirement. We charge and get into debt. When our employers cut back benefits or end them altogether or fire us at a time of increasing prices for gas and basic foodstuffs like eggs and milk, we are on the edge of the precipice.

We think we were shafted because we followed the rules and the deck was stacked against us from the start.

The birds don’t care what goes on below them. As long as they can avoid predators and find a meal and a branch on which to roost through a cold night, they will live to fly another day and breed when spring comes.

Spring seems a long way off.

Today I learned something from my husband. Not only is the state bird of South Carolina one of my favorites - the carolina wren - but the state motto is Dum spiro spero - While I breathe, I hope. Spero is the root of the word despair - no hope.

Hope is the thing with feathers, wrote poet Emily Dickinson.

When MH told me this phrase I heard it as dum spiro sparrow.

That is another reason why I feed the birds - for a short time I can forget about this life of despair and concentrate on something with feathers.