If you asked a male white-breasted nuthatch in the Middlesex county area about me, I’m confident he’d tell you that I run a hell of a bird feeder. Or, at least, that I did. For much of late winter through early summer in 2014, there wasn’t a more dedicated newcomer to the birding community. My avian prowess came out of nowhere. Every time I question that this vast universe could burst into something from nothing, I need only remember that my sudden desire to provide top-notch service to birds arose in much the same mysterious way.
There was a considerable amount of nothing in my life at the time this birdfeeder idea arrived. I was twenty-seven and back working part-time in my hometown of Boston after fleeing from a respectable corporate public relations position in Los Angeles. The PR job was four years of unrelenting stress, a developing vodka dependency, and the sinking feeling that if I didn’t make a change, I just might end up staying there forever. I spent months chatting with coworkers about escape plans and pleading with my therapist for answers I knew she had scribbled somewhere in her notebook. After months of internal debate which resulted in my neither finding a new job nor leaving my current one, I acted. Instead of minor tinkering like asking a friend for a skill endorsement on my LinkedIn page or reaching out to a former colleague about open positions at their new agency, I quit. I’d like to say that I resigned, but I believe you need to have a bigger paycheck to use that word. Drastic action was the only action. By quitting, I guaranteed that my life would turn in a different direction. It could be for better—probably for worse—but turn it would.
As a pessimist, I worried that this impulsive move back East would provide too much free time. The boredom could increase my chances of picking up a new drug, dying in my parents’ basement, and having my body discovered by the golden retriever I never really grew to like.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, author and incredibly hopeful Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl posited that man can survive any how as long as he knows the why. As an underemployed, twenty-eight-year-old man with graying hair, no romantic interest, and a bachelor pad located on the second floor of my parents’ house, I was certainly searching for my why. For a brief time, the birds, the feathered vertebrates I used to loathe, filled that need.
I started with a window feeder. The box showed two kids staring in awe at a bird just inches away from their face. I wanted that up close and personal experience. It’s feels virtuous to say that you’re feeding the birds, but it’s really about seeing them. If not, the park pigeon lady would have a much better reputation.
Sadly, the window feeder was a failure or, more accurately, a scam. Birds don’t like being gawked at while they dine by some giant squished against the glass. Squirrels on the other hand were happy to entertain a voyeur or two while they chowed down on stolen food. The squirrels, whom I quickly started to call “gray bastards,” regularly climbed up the house and jumped onto the feeder. They ate all of the feed right out of the bowl until their swelling derrieres overpowered the strength of the suction cups, sending the seeds, and themselves, crashing to the deck. I threw away the window feeder in less than a week and decided to get serious.
I hopped online and purchased a feeder that hooked onto the porch railing. The tightrope walk proved too challenging for even the most athletic bastards. After taking delight in the squirrels’ failure, I moved onto the next question. What if the birds didn’t come? What an embarrassment that would be, I thought to myself while purchasing the most expensive feed at the store. I knew my brothers would ask how it was going since I talked it up so much. I worked with my middle brother, Kent, and I spoke with the oldest, John, all the time. Having dragged me to a libertarian meet up in New Hampshire during his anarcho-capitalist phase, Kent was in no position to judge my strange pursuit, but I didn’t want John, my idol, to see me fail at a hobby enjoyed by my ninety-year-old grandmother from the comfort of her recliner. I had no choice but to lie to them if my offerings were rebuffed by the birds. The problem with that was I wouldn’t even know how to lie about birds with the kind of specificity a good lie demands. I didn’t know anything about them. I could hear myself telling them in a panic, “Yeah, we had a hundred buxom, blue-bellied, fiscally conservative, introverted sparrows this morning.”
As with so many of my concerns, the fear of low flight traffic proved unwarranted. The feeder was an overnight success. I didn’t have one or two birds an hour. I had birds on at least one to three of the four perches from sunup to sundown. I didn’t know if it was the feed or placement, but I did feel better about paying my car insurance late so that I could get the high-end “energy mix.” Maybe the rest of the neighborhood feeders went for the cheap stuff, well, not me. I saw my feeder as the market leader—the highest quality product with unbeatable convenience.
Within hours I had my formed my opinion on the feeder experience: riveting. It’s easy for a man to scoff at the idea of watching a bird feeder until he is standing there, taking in the glory of the various shapes, sizes, and colors flying in and flying out of a box like it’s a sort of Grand Central Station. John was the first brother to share in my ecstasy of bird watching. Often spending twelve hours every day at his desk in the field of mergers and acquisitions, he didn’t have the same flexibility in his schedule to watch birds out his window for five or ten minutes every five or ten minutes like I did. He finally had the chance when he brought his family up to Boston for the weekend. As the family stood around the kitchen table, discussing the proposed forced family fun activities of the day, a cardinal landed on the railing below the feeder. Upon seeing the red vision, John pushed up against the window, pointing and screaming “Cardinal!” with the excitement of a two-year-old informed it’s tubby time.
My dad initially called the whole project absurd. As a man who takes great pride in making four meetings across two states in the same day, never taking days off work no matter the illness or holiday, and falling asleep at his desk, this venture didn’t seem worth the time or capital. However, after a few days of heavy bird traffic, even he was calling to tell me which birds he had seen during stops at the house between errands. The enthusiasm made up for his being total crap at describing the species he saw.
Kent teased me, but he supported it from the beginning. Libertarian festival trips aside, he was no stranger to pointless pursuits. He even had a whittling period in his life. He would sit on the couch and sliver away at a small piece of wood to create a two-inch-tall dog. Running a bird feeder was an odd project, but I wasn’t whittling. After he noticed how much his two-year-old enjoyed watching the show, Kent asked me to consult about bird feeder placement in the backyard of his new house.
I wrongly assumed that having a bird feeder would be a cheap hobby. I figured the birds would appreciate the feed and go about their business. Sure, they might deposit the occasional bowel movement on my car but they weren’t going to ask for a loan to get the nest renovated. The price of popularity ended up being steep. After a month, word was out about what I believed to be the top bird diner in town. The feeder started the day filled to the top and ended with just a few cracked shells on the ground. My client base expanded to include bigger, greedier birds like the grackle and the mourning dove. The mourning dove was no looker but it was a dependable customer.
At its core, bird feeding is a superficial pursuit. I didn’t enjoy having the blue jay around my feeder because of his irreverent sense of humor. I didn’t prefer the woodpecker to the run-of-the-mill finch because we both had to follow a dress code in high school. No, I liked having them around because they looked pretty and even the mildest bird fan got excited to see him. I did Google “How to get rid of grackles” more than a few times, but I resisted taking any action. Besides, the ugliness of the grackle only elevated the beauty of the others. Perhaps every good feeder needs a villain.
The crowd became more diverse when I moved the feeder into the yard—my mother’s idea. We bought a long pole with a hook for the feeder and drove it into the back-left corner of the ridiculous garden Kent had planted and then abandoned after a year. While it was sad to see a few birds show up at the old spot and look confused, like somebody who returns to their hometown and says, “I swear there was a bar here,” the birds eventually found the new joint. Except, in the garden it wasn’t just about the birds. Yes, birds were attacking the feeder in unimaginable numbers but they now flew over squirrels chewing on fallen seed, chipmunks playing tag around the mourning doves, and rabbits on the hunt for fresh flowers to destroy. A little ecosystem blossomed in that eight-by-ten-foot patch of earth and people were taking notice.
I was out running errands one morning when I received a call from Kent, who had stopped by the house. “You won’t believe this,” he said. “You have a blue jay standing on top of the feeder, a bunch of little birds on the feeder perches, and critters running around below.” Hearts and minds had been won.
It was around the middle of summer, when I started reading up on bird feeder maintenance, that the rush of the feeder began to fade. That research would be the beginning of the end for my hobby. According to reputable websites, I needed to wash the feeder about once a week in order to prevent the spread of disease. As a lifelong germophobe with a more than minor case of hypochondria, it didn’t take much to convince me I could die in the outbreak of a rare cross-species epidemic. The fact that my hobby carried with it the potential for death was not welcome news. Most horrifying, one sign of a dirty feeder was finding a dead bird nearby. I did not sign up for that. I signed up for beauty in the yard; not bird blood on my hands. If you feed one thousand birds but your bad cleaning habits kill one, should you have ever become a bird feeder at all?
While I launched feeder mania, my mother was the one who really grew to love it. She didn’t appreciate my suggestions that maybe we should quit while we were ahead—not covered in avian flu. Not quite as prone to worst-case scenario brainstorming, she kept filling the feeder every morning. To her credit, she sees a thing through to the end. I have never seen her abandon a project no matter its difficulty or insignificance. Regardless how much we told her that nobody would be analyzing the banister for dust during a holiday dinner, if she felt the banister needed to be dusted, the dust was in deep trouble. Just as she was loyal to me and my brothers, she was now loyal to the birds. “I can’t stand the thought of them being hungry because we’re ignoring them,” she said. I did my best to explain that the birds had survived long before us and they would survive after us, but it didn’t sway her. I allowed her to keep filling the feeder provided she followed a strict hand washing protocol.
I still enjoyed keeping an eye on the action but I didn’t get the same jolt when I looked out and saw a woodpecker on the perch as I did in the earlier months of the obsession. Sure, it was exciting to see a nuthatch swoop onto the feeder the first hundred times, but there were diminishing returns. As summer dragged on, I began to realize the obvious fact that this bird feeder was not a calling but rather a necessary distraction from the rest of my life, a life at a complete stand-still in every area that mattered to me and the US economy. In the end, this bird craze was just another momentary obsession like my spirited but brief dips into transcendental meditation, model cars, and the opera.
Some things aren’t meant to be lifelong obsessions and that’s probably for the best. I think of how much worse my life could be if my elementary school magic hobby stuck or if I actually convinced my mother to let me take table tennis lessons with a former pro. I used to grieve my lack of follow-through, but after a few decades of energetic starts and abrupt stops, I have learned to accept that every once in a while I will fall deeply in love with a random pursuit for a brief period of time. The important thing is not whether or not I hang up a feeder at my next apartment (I probably won’t). What matters is that it gave me a distraction I so desperately needed. I was too busy trying to distinguish a purple finch from a house finch to focus on the fact that my life was directionless. It may not have been the most productive four months of my life, but I didn’t need production; I needed a break from all the anxiety I was feeling about what the hell to do next. Nothing cleared the mind like watching a tufted titmouse drop by for lunch.
I’m not worried that the birds will go hungry when I retire from the feeding game. There is probably somebody driving around the neighborhood right now who doesn’t know it yet, but he or she is about to rush out and buy a window feeder. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but certainly by spring. Surely, there has to be at least one person in every neighborhood who decides a bird feeder will cure what ails them. They won’t be right, but boy is it nice for a while.
Christian Harrington is a writer and teacher in the Boston area. After a brief public relations career in Los Angeles, he returned east to write material outside the press release genre. He holds an MFA from Emerson College in Creative Writing.