Rhythmic, high-pitched chirping alerts me to the presence of a cardinal on the balcony, and I move toward the window, halting a foot away to avoid scaring her. She hops over the wooden planks, breakfasting on the seed that sparrows and finches have scattered from the feeder hanging a few inches above. Tawny and svelte, she hops in quick darts, her movement as sharp as the point of her crest. This is our exchange: birdseed for mindfulness.
“Birding” or “birdwatching” evokes intrepid hikers pursuing exotic species and peering at them through binoculars, or rugged photographers hiding in blinds to capture their quarry’s images. These pastimes are surely valuable, motivating the exercise of minds and bodies in habitats mostly preserved from human development. Yet, many ornithophiles lack access to the free time and equipment required for this hobby—including grad students like me, tethered for most of the year to my desk, as the PhD regimen permits ever-decreasing amounts of fresh air.
Must we exclude the pajama’d grad student peering out her window from the definition of “birding”? The moments in which I observe the shapes, colors, songs, and behavior of the birds I encounter at home or en route from task to task are deeply rewarding. Pausing to look at a bird makes me step out of the flow of tasks and to-do lists, returning to the present moment. Such presence in the present is termed “mindfulness,” a buzzword these days. Google’s NGrams, which charts a word’s popularity over time, confirms the recentness of its fame—in English, at least.
As Steve John Powell notes in a BBC article, awareness of the present moment has been embedded in Japanese culture for centuries, and one manifestation is their appreciation of nature—blossoming trees, lunar phases, and even moss. Watching birds fits into this pattern of mindfulness. Recognizing their beauty also entails realizing their transience, both at the moment, as they are liable to fly off any second, and throughout the year, as changing seasons cause migrations. To watch means to depart from my endless assignments and reconnect with the world around me.
Beyond the moment of observation, birding prompts me to expand my knowledge of the local environment. I look up unfamiliar birds, learn their names, and research their habits. Through this informal study, I learn more about my locale. What lives does the ecosystem I participate in support?
Take the humble sparrow, the most frequent visitor to my feeders. After I hung a birdfeeder from a tree outside my home office, I had the opportunity to observe the patient parenting of a species I’d regarded as unremarkable. When the sparrows bring along their chicks, often as big as the moms, the chicks jiggle their wings, stick out their beaks, and cheep, saying in bird language, “Feed me!” The parents feed their chicks, momentarily halting the demand, but as soon as the meal goes down the hatch, the begging recommences.
Robins are another bird common in my neighborhood. As insectivores, they don’t eat from the feeder, but they accept what we apartment-dwellers can provide: a safe nesting site. For two consecutive summers, robins have nested atop our balcony’s pillars, letting my husband and I watch their process: construction, brooding on their eggs, and then feeding and cleaning their huge-mouthed, naked chicks until they are feathered and strong enough to descend two stories to the feeding grounds below.
No matter where I live or travel, there is a reliable consistency to the habits of birds. There is the fierce protection of their young, as I’ve witnessed by getting dive-bombed by angry parent red-winged blackbirds in Wisconsin and seagulls in Norway. There is their joy in flight, whether the acrobatics of swifts in Israel or the buoyant swoops of goldfinches in Pennsylvania. There is the intricacy of their patterning, whether the pileated woodpeckers I have spotted in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania or the hoopoe in Israel. Everywhere, they are beautiful.
Terms like “armchair anthropologist” typically have a demeaning connotation (OED – see sense B), implying that the amateur researcher fails to grasp their object of study from merely reading about it from the comfort of home. It is undoubtedly true that the serious scholar must actively pursue their subject. But I do not aspire to be serious about birds; if I did, I’d be studying ornithology instead of rhetoric and composition. They are a source of pleasure distinct from my work. And they are, wonderfully, all around me (even when I don’t provide birdseed)—I don’t need to hunt them out. Therefore, I recommend the healthful benefits of armchair birding. Watching a bird in quiet wonderment will bring your mind back to roost in a cozy nest of singular focus.