When Life is for the Birds

When it feels like life is for the birds I like to sit quietly on my deck and watch the birds. The chickadees come, usually one at a time, their actions conveying some kind of internalized guilt. They flit in, a few wing beats at a time interspersed with gliding, land on the feeder, look around, grab a seed, look around again like a thief, and then flit back to the nearby red oak tree to eat their bounty. It’s hard to imagine that one seed contains enough calories to make it worth the anxiety it appears to produce, let alone fuel the flight back and forth. But it must, as they seem to survive our brutal northern Minnesota winters one seed at a time.

The immature finches are like a gang of pre-teen kids riding around the neighborhood on their bikes with playing cards in the spokes of their wheels to make motorcycle noises. Do kids still do this? They sit on the nearby white pine branch and make a racket. All of them together, lined up on the branch creating a ceaseless racket of single-note, high-pitched chirps. When the coast is clear, they all descend on the feeder at once, all sitting in and then looking back and forth in the same direction nibbling away on seeds—chattering the whole time like the gulls in Finding Nemo, “Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine.”

The smallest member of the local bird community is, ironically, the biggest bully. The male ruby-throated hummingbird must be suffering some serious “little-man’s disease” and feel the need to prove his toughness to the rest of the birds. He hangs by the feeder and chases off anyone that comes near—other males as you might expect, but also female hummers and even the larger indigo bunting who briefly took an interest in the sugar water in the hummingbird feeder.

What fascinates me is the juxtaposition of the complexity and the simplicity. Their behaviors are the result of millions of years of natural selection and each behavior has a root in survival strategies and is the result of a variety of proteins produced through complex, ongoing, cell processes that are governed by the interaction of possibly thousands of genes in the genetic code, which in turn might be turned on or off as the epigenomic tags on the tightly coiled DNA strands containing the code are changed by the environment in which the bird lives. A biological two-step.

Yet, there is a simplicity, to my eyes anyway, that emerges out of this complexity. They simply live. They are in their ecosystem. They don’t have to sit and contemplate their role or their ecological identity. We do. To not do so is negligent. The chickadee cannot inadvertently affect my life and health. But most assuredly, my actions—maybe even well-intentioned actions, could inadvertently cause its extinction. There is a great deal of power that comes with our knowledge. That is why it is crucial to explore and know one’s ecological identity which can be expressed in this equation: Scientifically-based ecological literacy + Environmental literacy + understanding one’s connection to the natural world (even if that is in climate-controlled penthouse at the top of Trump Tower) = your ecological identity. Or more simply put, but with an emergent complexity, how you will “be” in the world.

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