On the Wing

Forget Me Not


Something unexpected happened this summer: I stopped refilling my bird feeders.

I’ve been keeping my backyard feeders stocked for years, only missing a day or two now and then. Nothing but the best for my winged customers: premium sunflower chips, a food that no bird species can resist; and nyjer thistle for the goldfinches and pine siskins, although even they always went for the chips first. I mean, let’s face it, chocolate is chocolate.

But when a friend who has been getting me a couple of bags of chips whenever she goes food shopping for her own menagerie asked me in early July if I needed a refill, I confessed with some guilt that no, I didn’t. I still had some left that I hadn’t used in weeks, and by that time my feeders had been hanging forlorn from their poles in my yard for several weeks, empty but for a few sad seeds stuck at the bottom, looking abandoned and a bit like Miss Havisham’s dining room minus the jilted-bride part.

I comforted myself with the thought that the birds I normally fed would not have gone hungry, that they would have been able to track down fully stocked feeders on the island. But I’ve known that there were other feeders nearby for years and yet I didn’t stop filling mine. Not only that, but last spring I even moved the feeder poles away from the bed with the ornamental grasses where neighborhood feral cats often hid, ready to pounce on ground-feeding species like juncos or towhees. So, clearly I had no plans to turn off the spigot.

It didn’t happen suddenly. I would fill the feeders one day, then forget about them for a few days, refill them, ignore them for a week, on and off like that until in the end I just walked past them, not looking, trying to pretend they didn’t exist. I tried not to notice the bag of sunflower chips sitting by the door, the seed probably going more rancid with every passing day. I was worried that if I went back to stocking the feeders it would be a short-lived miracle, that I would soon quit again and feel even more rattled by the experience.

In my defense I would argue that I was busy, that I had so much on my plate this summer I just couldn’t keep up. Or, again, that the birds would find another feeder and they’d be fine. That it was the middle of summer, birds were not as active so they didn’t need me to feed them, and my garden had already gone to seed –– there were plenty of natural food sources.

So many excuses.

But that’s how it starts. That’s how habits die, how attachments wither and shrivel away. I’ll do that tomorrow for sure, you tell yourself. It will only take a minute, I should do that before I head out. Or right after breakfast; that’s it, I’ll fill the feeders after breakfast. But you don’t.

Whatever the reason, by the end of the summer I was faced with a choice: take down the feeders for good or start up again, and this time be consistent. There’s a somewhat not-safe-for-work phrase to describe indecision and the need to remedy it. Of course there was a third choice: tell myself I was overthinking this, that I should be kind to myself and not beat myself over the head about this, and so on. We know how well that kind of advice works. And that entire situation had grown into a real irritant.

So one morning I’d finally had it. I dragged out the bags of chips and thistle, cleared the cobwebs that had built up in them,  and went back to the familiar routine, shaking the feeders clean and filling them up. It was like hanging out with an old friend again; a friend, however who didn’t know if I could be trusted. Later that morning I looked out and sure enough, it hadn’t taken them long: some of the regulars were back, the chickadees, the nuthatches and the last of the goldfinches, all busy claiming their real estate on the tubes. Then the usual ground feeders, the juncos and the giant band-tailed pigeons, taking care of what seed the messy eaters on the feeders had shared with them.

And wouldn’t you know it, while all was certainly not right with the world again, that little piece of it was.

I’ll take it.

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, historian and avid birder who writes from Herron Island.