Lessons Learned From The Bird Feeder

My favorite mornings are slow mornings, and last Friday was a rare treat. It began by sitting on my couch with our dog, coffee in one hand while providing slow pets with the other — both of our gazes focusing outside, observing our local sparrows and blue jay enjoying the spoils of a freshly filled bird feeder. Watching their activity reminded me of just how harmonious nature can be and offers some perspective on how we think about resources.

The sparrows were the first to the feeder that morning. The New Jersey sparrows that I share space with are brown, small, and slightly plump. Sometimes they hop around the ground of our condo’s deck looking for seed scraps from the feeder, and I imagine bugs. They spend time in the bushes and trees close by, singing songs of today to one another. When it comes time to eat they each find a perch on our feeder and nibble away. On Friday there were too little perches for too many sparrows, so we watched them collaborate to ensure that everyone got fed.

Every so often a fellow sparrow would come and drive one off a perch so that they could eat. No one watching these sparrows would label this mutual exchange of food access a competition as there was little resistance other than an occasional vocal disagreement before departure. Sure enough, when an absent sparrow was hungry again, they would return, usually to a different sparrow than the one that came to them, and engage in switching places: synchronized cooperation, understanding that competition over this resource was a waste of energy. Together they seemed to agree that a bit of patience and understanding about their fellow sparrows’ hunger would be better for all of them.

Umbra and I heard a not-so-distant shrill; a blue jay is here. Our feeder supports about four sparrows at a time, but our blue jays are sizable and not so keen on sharing the perches. It swooped in and the sparrows scattered, not interested in contending with their assertive neighbor. And thus the most advertised historical narrative of nature occurs, the strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must. The blue jay pecked away at the hanging bounty, the sparrows retreated to our bush to bide their time, and I enjoyed another sip of coffee.

Our bluejay friend wasn’t long for its visit. After enjoying its fill, it departed for the nearest tree and began to sing about what I imagine was news of the unusual find. Like clockwork, our sparrow neighbors had returned. Patiently nibbling, switching positions when needed, and working together to ensure every little belly had its fill. The bluejay returned to eat, the sparrows scattered in retreat, and so the cycle continued. Contrary to assumptions our local visitors wasted no time on conflicts of the strong and weak, choosing instead to recognize the other’s desire for harmony. Maybe that’s what we’re missing.

So absorbed in the struggle for the future and yet so defined by the decisions of history we look past one another instead of recognizing our shared circumstance. Race, creed, religion, socioeconomic status, all matters of the present subject to countless moments of oppression defined by the past. If only each of us had just a few more minutes a week to sit down and observe nature, perhaps we’d find that the answer to our most pressing problems has always been with us. Natural harmony and cooperation towards shared good, a wonderful holiday lesson.

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