On a cold and gray midwinter afternoon, I stand on the top deck of my Anchorage home and invite a flock of redpolls to come and eat. Body pressed tightly against the wood railing, hands cupped and filled with sunflower seeds, I face north, toward the backyard spruce trees where dozens of these northern songbirds roost. And I wait.
Songbirds visit my feeders daily from September through April: black-capped and boreal chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, pine grosbeaks, pine siskins, common redpolls, even an occasional downy or hairy woodpecker.
The birds bring me great pleasure, but in one respect they frustrate me. I have wished, for years, to feed them from my hands. I know this is possible because I've seen pictures, heard stories; yet all my open-handed attempts have failed.
Dulcy, my wife, urges patience. "You have to be still and quiet and wait," she gently reminds me, over and over. "Don't give up so easily."
Patience, I repeat, standing with my hands outstretched. Today I'll practice patience. And stillness. I'll slow down, set aside my eagerness and ego, and see what happens.
I didn't begin the day pondering the mysteries of hand-feeding birds. A two-day blizzard had dropped more than 20 inches of powdery snow. So, before anything else, I resolved to clear the driveway. Dulcy volunteered to sweep the decks and put out birdseed, normally part of my routine.
I finished the driveway shortly after noon, then went inside and headed upstairs to check on Dulcy's progress. There she stood on the back deck with hands extended, surrounded by redpolls, tiny sparrowlike finches. Amazed and excited, I rushed toward the sliding-glass door - and scared the birds away.
"How'd you do that?" I asked in wonder.
"Easy," she replied. "I was patient."
Figuring the birds would still be hungry after the storm, I ran downstairs and returned with boots, jacket, hat, and a supply of seeds.
NOW I stand on the deck, seed-filled hands atop the railing, body facing the backyard spruce, head slightly bowed. Beside me is Dulcy, once more my teacher, who urges in whispered tones, "Stand still, don't make a sound, and keep your head down when the birds come in. Pretend you're a statue."
To sweeten our offering, we've spread shelled and chipped sunflower seeds along the railing and on the deck floor. Five, 10, 15 minutes pass, but no birds approach. We know the redpolls are out there; we hear their high-pitched chirping, see their movements in the yard. Some feed on the ground, others perch in spruce trees or chase each other through the air.
Just as hope is fading, a redpoll flies in. Then another. They're tentative, easily spooked, and soon fly off. It goes this way for several minutes more. One or two birds are drawn in, but they quickly leave. Recalling Dulcy's advice, I close my eyes, let go my expectations, relax. It's their choice, not mine. They begin to arrive. One, two, three redpolls, then a dozen, then 30 or more, all eating seeds. The more the birds flock around us, the calmer they seem.
I open my eyes slightly to watch. A male repoll gazes at me quizzically, head cocked and eyes shining. Then he turns away and resumes eating. Others engage in scolding matches and territorial skirmishes. Or they hop from seed to seed, grabbing a bite and moving on as if they were at a buffet.
Now a redpoll hops into Dulcy's open hand. Another redpoll, a female, moves toward my hand, and touches me lightly with its delicate foot. Then it steps onto my palm and picks at the seeds there.
I wonder what the birds make of us, how they interpret our human energy.
For a few moments, at least, they accept our presence. Redpolls sit calmly in both of my hands, land softly on my shoulder and head, brush against my skin with their feathers, hop around my feet.
I study their black, shining eyes, their yellow beaks, red-feathered head patches and black "bibs," the pinkish-red breasts of the male birds. Perhaps, if I stayed at this long enough, I'd be able to distinguish individual birds by size or shape; some are thin, others not so. Or maybe by the color of their head patches, which range from dull orange to almost fire-engine red; or the size of their bibs. Even the shade and patterns of their mottled white-and-brown back feathers vary from bird to bird. And what about their personalities? Some seem rather aggressive, others seem timid or complacent.
Surrounded by this feathered energy, I sneak a glance at Dulcy. She, like me, is smiling. These are smiles of absolute delight. The birds lift my spirits, offer connection. Now at last I can begin to understand why some people feed pigeons or ducks.
Feeding songbirds is what works for me.