Food for Thought

The feeders hang full, the right amount spilling onto the ground for those who so choose.

I wrap the sweater tight against the frost February morning and head inside to the percolating coffee. Hands firmly around a steaming artisan mug, I stand at the kitchen sink and watch as the diner opens for breakfast.

The red-headed woodpecker is always among the first, brazen in his dominance of the berry suet block.  He’s closely followed by two wrens, happy to snatch their meal before the bigger and bolder diners shoo them away.

Four orange-brown towhees scutter among the dead leaves, preferring to nibble from the ground, seldom if ever from a perch.  The rare Dalmation dove swoops in, and as always I wonder how Nature got her camouflage so wrong.  Finally, the fiery scarlet cardinal roosts high above the feeders seeming to be the queen of our little forest, much like a lioness overlooks the savannahs. 

As I turn to refill my mug, the swooping in of a large blue jay catches my eye.

  I find myself holding my breath. 

I’m suddenly a little girl, standing at the sink watching birds eat from a feeder crafted during my brother’s Boy Scout camp.  Pete the Cowbird was a daily fixture, and we’d gleefully squeal, “He’s here!” when he arrived.  I’m lost in the childlike wonder I used to feel when he’d peck at the window, as if giving us a squeal in return. 

One day our beloved cowbird was joined by a bawdy, boisterous blue jay. 

“Well, this isn’t going to go well,” Mom said, sincerely concerned about Pete’s well-being.  She went on to explain the nature of blue jays as if she was a learned ornithologist. 

They are mean.  They are bossy.  They are bullies and live to scare all the other birds away.  They don’t share.  They are cruel in their selfishness, and they are not to be tolerated.

I have no memories of the the interaction between Pete and the blue jay that day because my 5 year old brain was trying to grasp how a bird could be so mean and nasty, so wicked and unwelcome. 

I drift back to the birdfeeder outside, watching carefully, waiting for some kind of epic showdown the likes of the Sharks and Jets or the Montagues and Capulets. 

I’m gripping as tightly to my childhood perceptions as I am to my java-filled mug.

I lean forward to rap on the window, to shoo him away.  How dare he think he can come and mess with our happy little feeder life?

But I pause with curiosity instead. 

And I wait. And I watch.

He is big also very loud.  The jittery wrens fly away, but they’ve likely had their fill.  The woodpecker is just happy to have the suet to himself.  The cardinal queen remains perched from her throne.  The towhees are unfettered and still scuttle through the leaves for seed left behind. 

None of them fly away.  None of them squabble and fight.  Instead they flit and fly and eat and repeat, just like birds do. 

I’m so confused.  Where’s the bare-knuckle brawl I’d been taught to expect?

Nothing. Just normal bird stuff.

How is this possible?  For 50+ years I’ve held tightly to the kitchen sink teachings about who belonged and who didn’t, who was good and who was bad, who got a seat at the feeder, and who didn’t. 

Is it possible that I’ve been wrong this whole time?  That what my mother had told to her had then been told to me, and on and on the opinions and insights went?

After all, isn’t that the way most fear and prejudice travels?

I feel the chill of my skin in spite of the wooly wrap and the hot black coffee.  What else have I held on to without pausing to observe and discern on my own?  How often are careless bits of “insight” given that the listener will then cling to like truth? 

It’s a blue jay,  It’s “just a bird.”  My mom was far from sinister in the reporting of her beliefs regarding the blue jay’s characteristics, rather just sharing in my joy at the moment. 

But what if it isn’t “just a bird”? 

What if a cherished adult makes a careless comment to a child about someone’s differing abilities or appearance without thinking of how tightly the child will clutch the words? 

What if a co-worker participates in gossip, denigrating a person simply to idley pass the time?

What if a church member holds decades-ingrained beliefs about race, gender or orientation?  The implications are too far reaching to fully embrace.

Words matter.  Certainly we want to be open to the opinions and information of others, especially those we trust and revere.  But words not followed with our own discernment and observation stick like gorilla glue and never budge from the ears of the incurious. 

Nothing is happening at the feeder.   The introduction of a new bird, even with all of the warnings I carried forth about him, brought nothing.  No disruption, no war, no problem. 

The blue jay nibbles away.

The cardinal is fine.  The woodpecker is fine.  The towhees are fine.  Bird life is fine. 

Apparently all can be welcomed at the feeder and the world will not end.

My newly recognized prejudice is crunched and discarded like sunflower seeds on the winter ground.  Assumption is now preempted by opportunity and observation. 

The feeders are near empty, the birds are flitting away, and I, too, turn away, properly humbled and ready to start my day.

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