For the Love of Birds

The exhortation to “be mindful” has always felt more like a chore to me than an invitation. But the heightened presence that comes from birdwatching—that’s as natural and effortless as looking up at the sky. 

Caring for the birds is a daily pastime in my rural Virginia home, where I keep two seed feeders, two suet feeders, and a birdbath filled to the brim for much of the year. In addition to bringing their graceful beauty to our deck, the birds provide a soundscape to our yard that changes with the seasons. I enjoy watching the house finches squabble over seed, the goldfinches transform from drab to brilliant yellow, and how all the birds disappear in a flash when a hawk flies over the yard. Now and then, a sparrow or chickadee will sit quietly on a branch near the birdbath as if it is drinking in the beauty of the day. Witnessing the peace and stillness of those tiny beings always soothes my soul. And whenever my mind is caught in some anxiety-producing thought loop, I can always count on the birds to bring me back.

As much as I love the birds that frequent our feeders, it’s the encounters in the wild that are the most memorable to me. My husband, Rick, and I were on an overnight bike trip last summer when we stopped our bicycles on a bridge over a sparkling stretch of creek. Suddenly we heard a whirr, whoosh, rush, and looked up to see a raven, its ebony feathers gleaming in the sunlight. I watched spellbound as it circled several times to check us out, then turned west and flew right over us again. Who knows what it was really doing, but as I watched the dark arrow of its head and body slicing through blue sky, it felt like blatant curiosity to me. I’m not sure why the moment moved me as it did, but some combination of the raven’s wildness and the warm sun on my face erased time and left me feeling richer for my encounter with those black wings. 

There’s a path along the Greenbrier River in West Virginia where we often see indigo buntings, their bright blue backs flitting across the trail as we bike. The color of those birds is so startling, so uncommon amidst the pine green and underbrush lining the trail, that it always comes as a shock. “Did I really see that?” I think, even though I know I did. And for the next few minutes, I’m as awake and alert as I’ve ever been, brought into full awareness by an electric blue bird barely as big as my fist, whose flight crossed my line of sight for one brief instant.

Just recently, Rick and I were biking in eastern Virginia, near Jamestown, when we decided to stop at a trailside park for an afternoon snack. The park skirted the edge of the Chickahominy River, near where it joins the James. As we pulled out a bag of peanuts and some crackers, Rick suddenly pointed out over the expanse of river where a large bird was flying toward us. As it banked right, we could see the white head and tail gleaming in the sunlight. “Bald eagle,” we said simultaneously, our voices tinged with awe.

In the time it took us to eat a few handfuls of nuts and crackers, we saw three bald eagles and a great blue heron. The place was magical, the confluence of the two rivers alive with gulls, geese, cormorants, and the soaring eagles who’d finished their fish hunting to ride the air currents high above us. We saw many sights on that trip—our first blooming daffodils of spring, the massive gates to old plantations, turtles lined up on a log in a trailside bog—but what accompanied me driving home was the instant I first realized I was watching an eagle, its powerful wingbeats somehow drawing me along with it and turning an ordinary day into one I’ll never forget.

Although I don’t bike or hike just for the love of birds, there is something about watching winged creatures in the wild that puts me in touch with wonder and delight. Perhaps it’s the unpredictability of these encounters that etches them into my memory—rounding a bend in the trail to see a golden eagle launch from a cliff; startling a great blue heron whose wings seem to reach from one bank of a creek to the other as it flies upstream; the subtle coloring of cedar waxwings diving from tree limbs over a river to catch bugs. Whatever it is, these experiences provide a needed reminder that life is full of surprises when I’m mindful of my surroundings and open to receive the gifts that birds dispense just by letting themselves be seen.

Danna Faulds is the author of six books of poetry and the memoir Into the Heart of Yoga.

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