My parents planted the bird-watching seed

Thirty years ago, my daughter and her boyfriend cruised down University Drive in Tuscaloosa, wearing Grateful Dead T-shirts and listening to Bob Dylan on the VW’s radio. As they drove through the campus, she had a sudden realization.

“Uh, oh,” she said. “I’ve turned into my parents.”

All these years later, I guess I have, too. I didn’t listen to their Big Band music or drive around in their big, boxy Buick, but from them I learned to appreciate birds, those creatures we’re usually too busy to notice. Now that we’ve been home for so long, we look up, and there they are, calling out to us and to each other, offering us some beauty in this bleak winter season of COVID and contagion.

My parents had the boring old people’s habit of watching the birds from their tiny back patio. Baby birds learned to fly there, and you’d have thought my father built their wings. Ever the handyman, he made a birdhouse for them, then another, and put together a metal birdbath so he could watch them splash.

He and my mother sat out there with their drinks in the cool of the early evening and watched the birds put on a show. When I was home from college, he’d point out this bird—a Common Grackle—and that one—a Northern Cardinal, and the way some birds preened and fluttered their feathers and others just pecked seeds from the patio tiles. And wasn’t it interesting the way they all had a different song?

No, not to me. I’d already left the nest. I was on my way out to start my own life. My father placed a bird book on my bedside table, but I just skimmed through the boring pages. But my parents had planted seeds. Bird seeds.

Now, when I get up in the morning, before I’ve even had my coffee, I look up to see the birds perched in the tall trees, waiting and watching. Have they been in the branches since dawn? They must chirp about how lazy I am, sleeping until 7 or 8. I have a job to do, but I’m late and they know it.

We keep our bird feeders in a metal container so the squirrels can’t steal the seed. When I hang the feeders on their long hooks, they swing back and forth like a conductor’s baton. Bird song follows.

A soloist announces that breakfast is served. Before I get back inside to pour my first cup, birds are riding the swinging feeders and lining up on the deck railing like hungry customers at a buffet line.

Birds do what we all wish we could do: fly away when there’s danger, feather our nests when we need comfort. Peck with our beaks to make that rat-a-tat sound when we’re determined. Soar up with such beauty, our wings tilted toward the sun.

Here’s the bargain: we give them feeders full of seed—the good stuff my husband buys from the specialty store. They give us a full day’s viewing.

On a winter’s morning, I sit in front of the fire, and bird life flutters outside our picture window. If I move suddenly, they send up an alarm. I could be the enemy, for all they know, not the hand that feeds them. They’ve seen the Cooper’s Hawk swoop down every now and then and snatch one of their kind away.

Bird books tell us what we need to know, but the birds themselves, hanging on the feeder or splashing in the bath, put on a show. The bird seed is our cost of admission. Even though the birds cover my car with their calling cards of white mess, it’s worth it. A cardinal on the feeder can take my breath away with its crimson beauty.

I wish I could tell my parents, long gone now, I get it. I see what you mean. Thanks for planting the seed.

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