Updated: Dec 31, 2019
Previously published in Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, December 2015 edition
It is too quiet at my house. The songbirds are gone. I think I may have killed them.
On the patio just out my bedroom door there is a residential version of a savannah watering hole, my joy and offering during these parched years of Californian drought. A large green bowl that I fill with water each day sits next to an iron birdbath, leaf-shaped, just steps away from a hanging cylindrical feeder full of sunflower and millet seeds.
Each morning, warm under my covers, I look out on this scene, curious who will be the first to arrive. Usually a few juncos beat the scrub jays, but once the jays come the small songbirds retreat until these rowdy ones get their fill. The chipmunks don’t seem to care. Cheeky themselves, they scurry under the swinging feeder, scrambling after spillage from the jays who squawk their exit, which is eagerly anticipated by the varied audience in surrounding shrubs.
Juncos are the first to sweep back to the vacated feeder. Chickadees, sparrows, and pine siskins grasp nearby branches. A few stand demurely in line on the redwood railing. I muse from the comfort of my bed about these arrangements. Is there a protocol? Some avian code of ethics? Meanwhile, though the air is chilly, small yellow warblers crowd the birdbath and baby quail turn the green bowl into a spa. One bird after another takes a turn to squat, splash, flap and ruffle.
This was the raucous morning world until a short while ago, when instead of critters, uneasiness crept in. Why so quiet? Why’s the feeder still so full? Is no one thirsty?
I do a search and discover—horrified—that there is an avian epidemic in many locations across the country, including Northern California. Salmonella. It is deadly and contagious, especially to songbirds, especially those who congregate at feeders, water bowls, and baths where infected fecal matter can contaminate food and water. With the best of intentions, have I created a deadly environment? I remove everything: the green bowl, the birdbath, the feeders.
And I wonder, can it happen just like this? Populations wiped out? In my darker moments I have despaired for future children: will they hear birdsong in the morning? How many decades until skies are empty of birds? But it is now, not later, in my yard, on my street. I shudder as I shed one more skin of innocence.
A FEW WEEKS LATER
And still so quiet – no small fluttery movements in bushes. No morning trills or liquid lullabies. Juncos, sparrows, chickadees – so beautifully ordinary, so soothingly numerous, and now not. Because they are not here, they are with me all the time. Death and absence bring the cherished inside as constant companions.
In our long drought, rain manifests as “Not Raining”—its essence conveyed through absence. When have we—rain and I—ever been so intimate, as through this thirsty longing? Over and over I bring it close, smell what I remember of it, taste its clearness, hear its patter, the gush through gutters, feel it cover my upturned face and trickle, wet and cool, down my neck.
An act of faith: I fill a brown ceramic bowl with cold clear water and pledge to sterilize it daily. Now I wait to see. This is an act of self-forgiveness. The softening of all or nothing, the thawing of paralysis from guilt. A recognition of nature’s resilience. A few small birds have recently perched on the railing, peeked in my windows, pecked in the duff.
As I keep watch for birds, a redbud sapling taps and brushes at the glass door, calling my attention. It's a sparse little tree in a three-gallon container that I left to die—I couldn’t justify the water in this severe drought. The tree is not edible, not native, and the conservation guidelines suggest no. But it clung to life in desiccated soil, leaves unfurling despite neglect, heart-shaped and green. They quiver like alpine aspens.
This sapling seems to ask – can it stand sentry by my door? It has branches perfectly sized for songbirds’ tiny feet. Who am I to say no, to be so stingy? Right action is complicated: what was a green thumb has become extravagance as we shift from nurturers to conservators of resources.
Yet life wants to be lived, to green out. Guidelines are good, but rigidity becomes a drought of the spirit. Can I say “yes” to this one redbud spreading its tiny boughs for returning warblers to alight upon? Can I say “yes” to songbirds splashing and sipping as they slowly return? I count them - one by one, two by two.
* * *
Bird Feeding Guidelines Online resources provide information about avian diseases that humans can inadvertently foster as well as advice on how to prevent the spread of disease. Many guidelines suggest the following:
To prevent disease avoid overcrowding at feeders.
Clean feeders at least every two weeks, soaking in a 5 - 10% bleach solution for 10 minutes, then rinse well and allow to dry.
Birdbaths and water bowls should be cleaned daily.
If you suspect disease, remove all feeders for a month.
Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, December 2015 http://darkmatterwomenwitnessing.com/issues/Dec2015/index.html
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