The feeder's empty, so why are the birds here?

A shadow flickered against the wall of my living room in the afternoon's diminishing daylight. Even though I caught the movement peripherally, by the time I stood up to catch a glimpse of what had made it, it was gone.

I had suspicions, though, and I was beginning to feel rather guilty.

More than a year has passed since we've stopped feeding the birds. Feeders hang empty outside the sliding glass doors leading to the deck, as well as outside our bathroom window. An evacuated bee's nest occupies the top part of another empty feeder beside a Japanese maple in a backyard garden.

It was a difficult decision, but we ended the practice for a few simple reasons. Seed on the ground attracted mice. When we stopped using seed, mice were no longer a problem. We initially turned to suet cakes, but we quickly found they became messy. Morsels of the gluey mixture splattered across windows, the side of our house, and they clogged the track of our screen door. Birds are not the neatest eaters.

My wife and I also learned that we didn't do a good enough job keeping up with the maintenance of owning feeders – mainly the cleaning part – so we decided to stop feeding the birds altogether.

I have to admit, though, that I miss them. I miss staring out windows at chickadees, titmice, and juncos, as they battle for control of a morning snack. I miss seeing woodpeckers swoop down from the side of a birch tree to peck away at a suet cake, before dashing off, their spotted wings flapping to a new landing place. I miss looking through a Golden Guide bird book to identify new species that have shown up on our property.

Our backyard was a more active place when we fed the birds. I remember holding my breath as I watched birds hop between the branches of hemlocks and pines. It was easy to become mesmerized by these tiny creatures' movements. Bird-watching became a meditative act. It allowed the day to slow down, if only for a few minutes.

Until recently, I hadn't seen birds bother with the vacant feeders – and, because of this, I'd mostly forgotten about my own interest in birds. We've seen some of the same birds in our yard as we had when we fed them – including cardinals once in a while – but it seems that most have been finding food elsewhere, or they just remain in the woods.

Perhaps they need to fatten up. Or maybe they remember that food was once available to them at this address. They could also be desperate.

If you pay enough attention, there are lessons to be learned from any hobby. One thing I learned through bird-watching was patience. Of course, you can learn patience from other activities, too, including chess, baseball, and knitting. Birding requires the ability to be still and just observe. It's passive, but in a most active way.

I was reminded of patience a few weeks ago when I spotted three bluebirds about 15 feet up in some trees alongside a stream near my house. For years, I had tried without success to attract these birds to our yard. I bought a special bluebird house made in Maine (sparrows ultimately moved in), and even purchased live mealworms (to my great disgust), spreading them among what looked like sawdust in a little $7 plastic tray. I waited. I added more mealworms. I waited some more.


I think I spent more time pursuing bluebirds than I have figuring out how to invest for retirement.

I tried snapping some photos of the bluebirds that day, but they seemed to know what I was up to. I was not fast enough. They took off down the length of our brook, leaving a beautiful bright blue streak in their wake.

I should have known they'd come when I stopped trying to attract them. This is a basic principle of life. Sometimes you need to stop trying so hard and let things come to you.

Minutes later, a yellow finch visited, another rarity in my yard.

I think the birds are trying to tell me something. Although I haven't decided yet whether to stock our feeders again, the birds should know that I am listening.

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