Field Notes from the Brink


“Watching birds, I watch my feelings, too. I can see that there is an emptiness inside me without the birds, a completeness and odd security in the presence of the birds. When I forget to feed them, they withhold their consolation. Bribed with seed and suet for their company, they offer comfort and reassurance.”   Will Felker

I understand how Will feels.  I too blatantly bribe the neighborhood birds, and will stand with binoculars at my kitchen window in rapt attentiveness.  They draw me out of the minutae of my daily life, and call me into a rhythm that is at once slower and yet more urgent than the incessant tyranny of the clock. 

In past years, I’ve watched cardinals, nuthatches, juncos, finches, jays, woodpeckers and the like at my backyard feeder.  This year has been different. I’ve not seen a single cardinal or nuthatch. Finches? No. Woodpeckers? Nada. The usual variety is distressingly absent. Instead, this season I’ve got a bevy of aggressive starlings, a flurry of sparrows and even a few humongous crows.  Now, I have a soft spot for the sparrows, or “lbbs” (little brown birds) as they’re affectionately called, but the starlings bother me. And the crows? WHAT??  Why in the world are they at a backyard feeder?? 

It’s frankly got me worried.  Songbirds are in decline worldwide. They are beset by predation (much of it from domestic cats), habitat loss, light pollution that disturbs their migrations, toxins and pesticides and heaven knows what else.   This year, I feel something of the emptiness that Will describes in the absence of the birds.  I sense that something is not right. Something is off kilter. And it really bothers me, at a deep gut level.

In the abstract, I understand the “environmental crisis.”  I immerse myself daily in bad news on that front. The Earth is going to hell in a hand basket , and teeters on the brink of catastrophe. I know it all in my head. I teach it to my students.  I write about it. I send donations. I compost. I buy the organic milk. 

And yet…none of it hits me quite like the absence of a pair of cardinals at my feeder.

Back in the abstract again, I know (in my head, my too-much-thinking head) that this is due to evolution. My brain has evolved to respond to the small-scale. The intimate. The close at hand. Not graphs and statistics and pontifications from Al Gore (no offense, Al).  

The birds!! Where are my birds?? 

I call them mine. But they are not mine. They are their own selves. Wild. Not mine at all.  I want them to be mine. I want that sense of completeness and odd security of which Will speaks.  I want it! I want to know that the abstract, out-there, statistical environmental crisis has not yet arrived in my own backyard.

But it appears that it has.  It came in on the wings of aggressive, invasive starlings.

A few weeks ago, the news was all abuzz with reports of birds falling from the sky.  The “aflockalypse,” they called it, clever pundits that news folk are.  We all laughed at the turn of phrase.  Looking at my feeder, it doesn’t seem so funny.

I just want the birds back.

I just want the Earth back.  Is that too much to ask?

Will Felker follows the seasons and writes a weekly almanack. Find him at 

Photo Credit: flickr user richardefreeman at

About Rebecca

Natural spirituality writer, deep thinker, mom of 3, adjunct professor, resident of Earth
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One Response to Field Notes from the Brink

  1. Starlings are real little bastards. I hope your cardinals come back!

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