In an otherwise winter-dead landscape, wild birds bring a reminder that animate life still exists. The sun still rises, the Earth still turns, the seasons march on. When the frenetic pace of humanity becomes too much, birds offer a sense of peace, a reset button that allows us to relax a moment. These basic sentiments and sensations are rarely cited as reason enough for conserving our feathered friends, nor used in arguing that we have a right to nature.
My partner and I live in Leavenworth, Kansas, USA, less than two blocks from the federal penitentiary. One could hardly imagine a more stark, vivid contrast between the freedom of flight and the permanence of incarceration. We can see the dome from our kitchen window, but in the foreground is our back yard, enclosed by a wooden fence and one wall of the detached garage. Heidi insisted we put up feeders, and that gesture has been a blessing.
We moved from a dense residential neighborhood in Colorado Springs, Colorado well over a year ago now, and I have found it nearly impossible to embrace this much smaller town, overwhelmingly conservative in the political sense. Prisons, churches, and Fort Leavenworth define the entire county. The human atmosphere has been utterly stifling, and I have found my creativity and productivity suffering. Everyone I see looks old, unhappy, often in poor health.
By contrast, the birds that visit our feeders are energetic, alert, colorful. They chatter and sing as they compete for seed and suet, or communicate with fledglings they are still feeding (I’m looking at you, White-breasted Nuthatches). The birds are at least a reminder of what can be, the vibrant, happy lives we could have if we only chose to. We subscribe to far too many unhealthy pursuits and addictions as we try to escape the prisons of capitalism, familial discord, and other stressors.
As I write this, the only sounds audible through the walls and windows are gunshots at the firing range on the prison property, light vehicle traffic, and an occasional dog bark. We wait for the birds to visit in waves of brief duration, usually mixed flocks of House Sparrow, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, cardinals, Blue Jays, Mourning Dove, and woodpeckers. House Finches prefer to have the feeders to themselves and seldom appear with the other birds. What competition there is tends to be relatively peaceful, though until we can translate perfectly the calls of birds, who knows what is profanity.
Birds are not here for our entertainment, of course. Science tells us they fill niches unoccupied by other species, and provide ecosystem services such as membership in the food web, seed dispersal, and suppression of insects that would overwhelm entire ecosystems without checks and balances from avian predators. Still, such arguments are dry, impersonal, and relatively weak in convincing lawmakers and corporate executives of the need for conservation, preservation, and creation of bird-friendly habitat.
That is where comfort and joy come in. Birds, and other undomesticated organisms, are critical for the personal and social functioning of a great many people. The passion for birds is so great that it creates jobs itself: Seed growers and processors, feeder manufacturers, optical industries, travel and tourism, and parks and recreation agencies all depend on, and cater to, birders. Artists! Increasingly, landscape architects are specializing in planning and executing native plantings with birds in mind. Failing to acknowledge the comfort and joy that wild birds bring to citizens is an affront to human rights, and threatens to undermine our collective mental health, and even some livelihoods.
My partner and I have the luxury of White privilege, enough disposable income to feed the birds, and enough time to enjoy them. We can even travel to see birds elsewhere. We’re so far ambulatory and without most other physical challenges. It is incumbent upon us, however, to improve inclusiveness and promote diversity in birding whenever and wherever we can. We cannot allow anyone to be less than a proud birder, or birdwatcher, free of derision and shame perpetrated by those who have no appreciation for the living world in its natural state.
Share your bird-joy. Wrap others in philosophical, feathery comfort. Lend your binoculars and field guides. Donate to local, national, and international organizations promoting birding. Do not neglect those aimed at Indigenous, Black, LGBTQ, women, and other traditionally ignored demographics. There may be no greater gift you can give this holiday season, or at any other time of year.