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Photo Source: Patricia Salber

I confess. I am a birder. So is my husband. We like birds…a lot.

The ornamental plum in our backyard looks like a Christmas tree with bird feeders of different sizes and shapes dangling off the lower limbs. I also have three feeders on the deck outside my office strategically placed so I can pause to watch them throughout the day. My binoculars are always on the nearby bookcase on the ready when I hear the call of our resident red-shouldered hawk overhead. Watching him glide effortlessly on the thermals, making his incongruous high pitch call, thrills me to the depths of my soul — although it drives my big Black Lab, Sherman, crazy.

One downside of all these feeders is that it has become quite costly and time-consuming to keep them full as hoards of hungry goldfinches, house finches, and juncos greedily inhale the “no mess” bird seed and our downy woodpecker pounds his beak into the hot-pepper laced suet in the suet holder that I placed nearby just for him. And, that leads me to the other downside — the persistent duel I have with of our resident squirrel who never fails to believe that he can reach the feeder outside my office window that dangles about six feed off the ground.

Our yard is loaded with flowers that hummingbirds love, kangaroo paws and Lily of the Nile, so we have a plethora of Anna’s hummingbirds most of the year zooming from flower to flower, occasionally getting so close that we can feel the air currents generated by their wings. I once had to duck to avoid getting hit by one. It was amazing.

The joy of backyard birding

The best thing about having lots of bird feeders is you attract lots of different types of birds feeding on them. And, you have a chance to observe all manner of bird behavior — fighting, flirting, courting, eating, and singing.

The singing is delightful. It always captures our attention. My husband and I have learned the songs of our most frequent feeders — the whistle of the Lesser Goldfinch (my personal favorite), the jabbering of the rosy colored house finches, and, the metallic chink chink chink of the California towhee, the call of the red-tailed hawk. (Are you having fun yet?)

What the Sparrows Told Me

So, a while back, when my husband forwarded me Trish O’Kane’s haunting opinion piece on birds and birding in the 8/16/14 edition of the New York Times, titled “What the Sparrows Told Me,” I read it with a grin.

O’Kane, a former human rights investigative journalist who researched the Rios Montt massacres in Guatemala, is now teaching basic ornithology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She got into birds in a circuitous way…starting with observing a group of small brown sparrows that managed to survive New Orlean’s Hurricane Katrina.

A month or so after Katrina, her father told her that he had terminal cancer. He found peace by watching the birds at his feeder.

“He didn’t know a Mugimake flycatcher from a Hudsonian godwit. But during his last days he loved to watch birds come to his feeders. If watching birds could help my father die, maybe it could help me live and teach.”

She bought two bird feeders and began watching the sparrows every morning. Instead of dwelling on the devastation of her city,

“I started wondering why one sparrow was hogging all the seed. I started thinking about their resilience, their pluck, their focus on immediate needs. If they couldn’t find food, they went somewhere else. If they lost a nest, they built another. They had no time or energy for grief.”

Birds as teachers

She writes that she knew that birds were teachers when one of her journalism students became obsessed with a pair of mallards, even researching their migration routes. He wrote a paper for the class in which he said,

“These ducks face a difficult and dangerous journey, every year. And they come back here [New Orleans]. They’re like us — tough, like Katrina evacuees. We were scattered all over but we made it back home.”

O’Kane started her essay by scorning the “well-fed, binoculared foreigners” who were counting birds in Guatemala where, she notes, people were still trying to count their dead from the massacres. In the end, she became one of those binoculared people loaded down with expensive equipment and studying birds that migrate to Central America…the very same area where “thousands of children…are migrating north to escape the violence and poverty created by our failed foreign policies and drug wars.”

Birding to Change the World.

It should not surprise you to learn that O’Kane teaches an environmental justice course, titled “Birding to Change the World. (Love it!)

She ends her essay by saying that she always tells her students,

“…that birds are a gift to help them get through each day, a way to enjoy the world while we change it so that young people, everywhere, have a chance. I tell them that when the world is caving in on them, just walk outside, listen for a minute, find that cardinal, that woodpecker, that pesky crow, and see what they’re up to. That tiny act, that five-minute pause, won’t save the planet, I tell them, but it might save you, one bird at a time.”

So, my dear readers, when the going gets tough and you think you can’t take it anymore, I hope you will find a bird (or two)…and just observe.

This story was first published on The Doctor Weighs In on 8/20/2014. It has been republished today because it seemed to me that in these particularly troubling times, you just might need it. Enjoy.

Originally published at on November 13, 2018.

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Dr. Patricia Salber and friends weigh in on leading news in health and healthcare

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