I shared in an earlier post how watching the birds at our feeder taught us many spiritual lessons over the course of Priscilla’s illness. Jesus told us to “consider the birds of the air” because they could show us much about God’s character and love for us, and this was certainly our experience.
For that reason, I was eager to bring the bird feeder with me here to Pittsburgh so I could keep “considering” and learning. I was delighted to discover that a previous resident had installed small hooks in the four corners of the concrete roof of the deck for my apartment (actually the bottom of the floor of the deck above). These were apparently used for hanging plants, as some still had small, rusted chains dangling from them. Shortly after I moved in, I cleared the chains off one of these hooks and hung the bird feeder from it.
Very soon I got a variety of visitors: chickadees, house sparrows, house finches, cardinals, tufted titmice, slate-colored juncos—the same kind of birds we’d had in Michigan. I knew they weren’t the same individual birds that had come to our feeder there, but I was encouraged by the thought that they had relatives here in Pittsburgh just as I did, and that we would now become acquainted.
However, as I continued to settle in, I read through the list of supplementary regulations for the building and I was devastated to discover that we were not allowed to “feed the birds.” Knowing it was a long shot, but willing to try anything, I went and asked the building manager if this meant simply that we weren’t to leave crumbs of bread out on the deck, or whether this also applied to neat, clean tube feeders like mine. The answer was that unfortunately they were included as well. This was because any seeds the birds might scatter from them, as well as the droppings they’d leave, would attract rats and mice. (Eew.)
I was already grieving the way I’d had to leave behind so many other parts of my life in Michigan, so it took me a while to process this further loss. But eventually I walked over to the nearby woods and poured all the remaining seed from the feeder out for the birds there. “Wait till you see what I’ve got for you!” I called out to them as bravely as I could manage.
The next morning around dawn all the birds started singing. I don’t think this was because they’d just discovered the seed, since they’ve continued to do this each morning. Rather, it was the “dawn chorus” of distinctive morning songs that the various birds sing.
When I heard this, I suddenly had a realization. I could learn the songs that each bird sang and enjoy their presence that way. I could still tell which ones were around by hearing them and identifying them, even if I wouldn’t be seeing them up close.
I went online, found recordings of bird songs, and gave myself a crash course in the songs of the species that, from my brief experience with the feeder, I knew were out there. Around dawn the next morning, I decided to try out my rudimentary knowledge. I could already hear muffled singing with the door to the deck closed. I slid it open.
In that moment I came to understand, in an experiential way, the answer to a question I’d been asked many times as a pastor: “How can God hear everyone’s prayers at once?” I’d always answered the question correctly, I hope, but still theoretically. (In effect, “Because He’s God.”) But now I found that I myself could listen to and recognize many different bird songs at once. It wasn’t just that I could concentrate on one song and say, “That’s a cardinal,” then concentrate on another song and say, “That’s a house finch.” I could hear the totality of the singing and know what birds had to be contributing to it.
There’s still an infinite difference between my being able to recognize a group of bird songs and God being able to give loving attention to billions of prayers at the same time. But I was able to share enough of the experience to make it real for me, rather than just theoretical, that God was doing this.
When I moved in, I’d playfully informed God that my prayers would now be coming to him from a new set of coordinates and that heaven should update its files accordingly. I saw now that I hadn’t needed to mention this. Just as I could continue to recognize a given bird by its song even when it flew to a different tree, so God “knew my voice” even when hearing it from Pittsburgh rather than from East Lansing. That was very encouraging.
I continued to learn bird songs. When I heard ones that weren’t familiar from my initial crash course, I investigated them. I quickly discovered that video was more effective than just audio, because it immediately associated the image of the bird in my mind with its song. I learned that a given species typically has several different songs that it sings. The morning songs were the most characteristic ones, but I began to be able to recognize birds even when they were singing alternatives. I found that each individual bird introduced some variation into them, and this allowed me to begin getting to know them one at a time. Once I learned a bird’s voice, I could tell when it was improvising.
I also learned that some of the songs were being sung by “ground feeders,” such as robins and towhees, that would never come to a hanging feeder. So identifying birds by sound enabled me to get to know even more of them than before.
There are still a lot of songs I don’t recognize. There’s a bit of a “chicken and egg problem” (so to speak) with this: if I don’t know what kind of bird is singing, I can’t look it up on the internet to learn to associate it with a particular song. But bit by bit I’m adding to my repertoire.
And to my surprise, birds have kept coming to the deck, even though there is no longer any food set out for them there. I think its floor and railings rival any branch for safety and as a vantage point, particularly since the woods are down a steep slope from the back of the building so that even my second-floor deck is higher than most of the trees.
One bird in particular, a wren, likes to perch on the railing and let loose with a full-throated song. He varies the melody often. I think he’s checking up on me: “Do you know this one yet?”
Update: I’d also brought our hummingbird feeder with me. It dispenses just sugar water, through openings that only hummingbirds can access, so I knew it wouldn’t create a problem of scattered seeds. Hummingbird droppings, if any, would have a trivial ecological impact. So I filled it and hung it from the hook where the regular bird feeder had been. Hummingbirds have been visiting. The first one came on Priscilla’s birthday.
One of my video tutorials.