Bird watching requires me to be present, to be silent and to be still. All of these things are a spiritual practice and I cannot help but think of Christ’s asking us to “Consider the birds of the air…” It’s a command I can easily and willingly obey. As a child, I loved to spend time in the woods behind our house and to discover birds, collecting parts of egg shells or empty nests or feathers. All of these things were prized by me and ended up on my bookshelves. My mother was horrified to see me picking up such things and warned me about how “dirty” birds were and to go wash my hands. Her warning, however, did not deter me in the least.
I loved laying in the fields or in my backyard on a beautiful spring or summer day and watch the birds in flight within the Carolina blue sky. I loved to hear birdsong from the trees and bushes, that seemed to fill the mornings and early evenings. Sometimes I would go to the local library to check out bird guides so that I could name what I saw: filled with delight when I spotted a bird and then found it in the guide. To know the name of the bird made this small event somehow more magical, as if naming meant the bird was somehow connected to me. It also meant that I was constantly on the look out for new birds. Where we lived, I saw a lot of Robins and Cardinals (my mother’s favorite and our state bird). Seeing them often, however, did not diminish their beauty or my desire to watch them.
As I grew older, however, I lost the magic of seeing birds. They became common objects, mundane and I did not take the time to pay attention and notice one bird from another. They, unfortunately, fell into generalities of trees, plants, and rocks (all things that had held me in their thrall during my childhood years) and I found myself paying more attention to girls and dating and music and all that encompasses the drama of the teenage years. Putting away childish things is the business of supposedly growing up, though I have come to appreciate the idea of maturing into childhood because it’s filled with wonder and delight.
It was only when my younger son began his interest in bird watching that my love of birds returned to me as a pure gift that life wants to give to us when we are open and allow it to. His enthusiasm for spotting birds drew me in and I found myself going on nature walks or spending time in our back yard watching and, as I had once done, helping him locate the birds we saw in the field guides I bought for him. His joy translated into my own as we observed birds going about their daily business. The birds were no longer mundane but were no less miraculous than burning bushes or ladders to heaven.
How had I lost this? I began to wonder. Why did I stop noticing? Stop paying attention? Why had seeing not been important?
To be present to these birds was to be present to the holy, the sacred, the divine. There is a Zen saying that goes, “Consider the trees which allow the birds to perch and fly away without either inviting them to stay or desiring them to never to depart. If your heart can be like this, you will be near to the way.” As I watched birds, I realized how pure an act it is. I don’t try to collect or capture them, but am content to simply watch them and let them be. I am aware of the birds in the world around me and this makes me open to not only birds, but all of nature. I see myself not disconnected from them but that we are both sharers in this world.
There’s a Chinese proverb that goes, “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.” I want to be more like that: less in need of answers, more in need of songs. To sing for singing’s sake. Pure music because it flows from the simple desire to make music. It is creation at its simplest and most amazing. There are times when I am walking through nature and I just stop, close my eyes and listen to the birdsong that fills the trees and my own soul. Emily Dickinson, the poet of small things, wrote, “I hope you love birds, too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.” Hearing their music is on earth as it is in heaven. It is glorious and rapturous. It is to find joy in the moment, just as I do listening to the sound of streams.
There is a euphoria to spotting a bird, especially when I know exactly what bird it is. The Black-Capped Chickadee or Carolina Wren or Painted Bunting or Killdeer. I find myself, no matter where I am, looking for birds. Seeing a hawk soaring overhead as I drive through the country or seeing Carolina Chickadees in the trees of a Target parking lot as they fly down to eat crumbs.
One of my family’s favorite parts of Spring is to see the Barred Owls that take up residence in our oak trees. Their families become a part of ours and we welcome their arrival and take pleasure in seeing their precious owlets. Or hearing the sounds of their calls at night. Deep down, secretly, I think we all still hope that one is going to deliver our letter from Hogwarts.
Now, when we go on vacation, we always look up where a great place is to bird watch in whatever city we are traveling to. We plan to go to nature parks so that we can spend time together doing something that continues to open us up to the natural world and to be amazed at the abundance of bird species. To see the diversity and the glorious beauty of some of their brightly colored feathers. I always carry my camera to snap photos of the birds we find so that we can look them up later. Although, with technology, we can also do that with Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s app eBird.
Bird watching is the cultivation of patience. Of being alive and awakened to what’s around you. To suddenly seeing the hummingbird drinking nectar from the fluted, brightly colored flower in our garden. It’s letting go of expectation and opening oneself up to what might see, a bird we’ve seen many times before or a new species that makes us gasp for breath in wonder. Either way, one comes away changed and grateful.
The poet ee cummings wrote, “may my heart be always open to little birds who are the secrets of living.” And I heartily agree with him. It is a kind of prayer that we pray to allow ones heart to always be open to the birds and not take them for granted. To wait and watch is to stop the world’s busyness. It is letting go of the notion that humans are of greatest importance and the center of everything.
To watch birds is to have a willingness to stop thinking about self. To focus on that which is outside of ourselves. It is to see the beauty and harmony that underlies all of nature. To look through binoculars and see that what one thought of as a plane, brown bird has subtle markings on their feathers and that there is a grace and deeper beauty than what one had first imagined allows for the opening of one’s soul to the true wonder that really is all around us.
Why would I not want to share in that? Why would I not want my sons to do so as well? It is a treasure that we can do this together. We are, all of us, allowing ourselves to be opened up to another dimension of our world, to seeking understanding in places where we had so busily overlooked them before.
To sit there, silently and watching, is a form of prayer. And, I cannot help myself, that when I do spot a bird suddenly, I find myself saying quietly, “Thank you.” This moment is, indeed, a precious gift. The world around us is filled with ten thousand truths if we let ourselves be present to them. May I always welcome such flights of wisdom and wonder into my life.
Happier of happy though I be, like them
I cannot take possession of the sky,
Mount with a thoughtless impulse and wheel there
One of a mighty multitude, whose way
And motion is a harmony and dance