I have a confession–I am not walking outside much right now. The pandemic has worn me down, shredded my sense of connection with others, and made me reluctant to leave the supposed safety of the walls of my home. Getting outside alone has felt more difficult than in the past. How much easier to simply move back and forth from upstairs to back down, from the living room to the kitchen then back again (we have a very small house).
I pause at my kitchen window in case any birds have arrived at the feeder. Ground feeding juncos who stopped by stray away from the feeder and perilously close to our cat’s outdoor “catio,” unwittingly risking their lives as they hop in, then back out of his wire enclosure. I hold my breath. Where is the cat? He may be lying in wait in his little igloo shelter within the outdoor enclosure we built for him—the perfect hunting spot for him to hide in, prepared to pounce. How patient, as his wild cat ancestors learned to be. Hunched down, a coiled spring ready to launch when unsuspecting birds venture too close. Suddenly, it will be too late (for the unlucky bird). Most often, however, he will miss his prey, but that is the lot of predators. They spend their days hunting since they are rarely successful. After another miss, our well-fed cat heads back indoors to sleep. He knows where his next meal is coming from.
Bluebirds arrive at our feeders in groups, first one, then a second, and soon five or six perch on the metal pole, then drop to the ground, hopping lightly across the mostly melted snow. They seem to have no fear of the ice—their claw feet naturally grip the icy remnants of a now forgotten snow storm, before they shift to the bare grassy spots where their hunt continues for more hidden seeds.
Downy woodpeckers visit often. They love the suet I hang from green wire cages. They and other visitors peck with energy at the fat, life-giving food that helps them keep warm while winter winds continue to blow, even as spring approaches. I feel surprised when a hairy woodpecker shows up. So much larger than its downy cousins, the hairy woodpeckers appear to be overweight, suddenly grownup downys. At first glance I wonder if it could be the even larger red-breasted woodpecker, but no, the coloring is not the same. I used to think downy and hairy woodpeckers were almost the same birds, but now, though their coloring is similar, the size difference is stark, unmistakable. Is it just because I have spent time paying attention? Or are these larger hairy woodpeckers new arrivals in our neighborhood?
When I feel reluctant to step outdoors, the birds that visit my feeder draw my attention outside. While watching them, I strive to remain still. If I slide our glass doors open when they are here, or even make a sudden move behind the glass, they quickly scatter, and my yard returns to stillness. Their presence reminds me that so much life continues outside, regardless of how I feel. And that reminder itself is life-giving. Getting outside of myself, stepping into another’s shoes as it were, makes a difference, even if those shoes are not actually shoes, but little claw bird feet. If such a thing as little bird or Big Bird shoes existed, perhaps my friends at the feeder would hop inside them to investigate. Perhaps those shoes might hold some hidden seeds left behind by others, yet one more place to explore in the daily, unrelenting search for food that is the lot of all wild things.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and editor of Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed. Just out is her latest book, Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are.
She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20+ years, has helped numerous families to save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress.