The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 1, 2006


An unidentified bird visits a Carlisle birdfeeder. (Photo by Susan Emmons)

Can't be bothered to feed the birds

My son Tim was gazing out over our backyard when his eyes fell on the bird feeder swinging from a nearby oak branch. "Mom, remember that time we put birdseed in our bird feeder?" he asked dreamily.

I do kind of. I think it was in late winter of 2003. I have a vague memory of a trip to the hardware store for black sunflower seeds. We filled the feeder and enjoyed the newfound company of birds for a week or so. Then we ran out.

It's inexcusable, I know. We live in a community chock full of birdwatchers (or "birders," as they prefer), animal trackers, dragonfly enthusiasts, and other naturalists of all kinds. A town whose newspaper runs a weekly column on biodiversity. We have one neighbor who can identify 12 different varieties of wildflowers — by their scent alone. And we can't even motivate ourselves to keep our birdfeeder filled.

I make lame excuses when my son pushes the point. "We believe that birds need to stay wild and depend on themselves for food, rather than on us," I tell him, trying to sound ethically firm rather than indolent.

I used to say that I had a black thumb, as opposed to a green thumb, wishfully imagining that it was just a lack of innate talent that made every non-human living thing I tried to take under my wing end up either dead (houseplants, tomato crops, patches of wildflowers) or looking elsewhere for signs of compassion (wild birds). But eventually I came to realize that it isn't bad luck at all; it's a particular form of selfishness. The reality is that I feel like it's enough responsibility to keep myself, my husband and my two small children alive and thriving; I just don't have it in me to nurture any more living beings. I work, exercise, cook, clean, read, write, volunteer at community events and socialize, along with keeping my family healthy and nourished. As I see it, that simply doesn't leave time for tending to other life forms.

Outside my parents' kitchen window are two bird feeders, each of which attracts a marvelous array of aviary specimens in a rainbow of colors: black magpies, brown chickadees, yellow finches, blue jays, red cardinals (my father and I have a tradition that whenever we glimpse a flash of crimson feathers, we call out the name of the first cardinal to come to mind. "O'Connor!," "Law!," "Madeiros!," and sometimes, if it's baseball season, "Albert Pujols!") The fact that my parents live next door to us provides extra impact to my explanations to the kids about why we don't maintain bird feeders: if the birds see food in our yard, they'll stop going to Grandma and Grandpa's and come to ours instead, and it would be mean of us to deprive Grandma and Grandpa of the privilege.

It goes without saying that we don't have any pets. Raising a dog seems to me like a quick way of doubling the responsibilities I already carry. It's not a feeling I'm proud of. I look at friends who have pets and envy their generosity of spirit the same way I envy people who have four children; not because I want four children but because I want to be the kind of person who would like to have four children — abundantly generous, overflowing with nurturing abilities. A person with love and compassion to spare. My friend Nicole oversees a household with two children, a cat, a grown dog, a new puppy and a rabbit, and she's scheming now to fence in the yard for a horse. I listen to her talk about animals and conclude she's simply a better person than I am, for having so much time and motivation left over to care for ever more of God's creatures, whereas I feel booked solid with the very few human ones I have and in no mood to take on more. Even if all it means is keeping the bird feeder full.

But last summer, our babysitter decided that the kids needed to experience the joy of raising sea monkeys. She bought them a small tank and what looked like a swarm of barely visible dots in the water. Within days, we could see tiny forms propelling themselves through the liquid, and now the sea monkeys are the size of ice cream sprinkles. When I heard that they might double in number the first month, I grimly told our college-bound sitter that the sea monkeys had miraculously gained admission to the same university she attends, but in the months since she first set up the tank, I've become strangely drawn to them. I find myself checking on their progress daily, almost existentially cheered by the fact that despite my professed indifference and utter negligence, they always look like they are having fun, cavorting through the water on their windowsill perch.

Meanwhile, my son is tending to them diligently, feeding them with a tiny plastic scoop and aerating their water. Maybe he'll avoid my parsimonious tendencies and have all the nurturing skills that I lack.

And best of all, he's stopped asking about the bird feeder. So the birds will just have to survive without our charitable aid for another winter. But who knows, maybe next year we'll come through for them. After all, my children are getting older. They can fix themselves a snack now and even get dressed on their own most days. Maybe I'll find time for bird care soon.

Or maybe I'll just continue leaving the birds to their own instincts. It wouldn't be fair to the neighbors if we started attracting all the best birds. I'm not selfish; I'm altruistic. I just want to leave the animal care and feeding to someone else. You see, I'm really a very generous person.

Just don't ask the birds if they agree.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito