It started a couple of years ago when some friends of ours gave us a birdhouse as a Christmas gift. It sat on a shelf in our dining room for most of the winter before my wife suggested we hang it outside our dining room window.
“Maybe someone will move in,” she said.
That spring someone did. A pair of small, brown and white birds started carting twigs and grass into the little birdhouse. After a couple of weeks, we heard a symphony of chirping whenever we walked by. They were raising a little bird family in there.
It became part of our daily routine to watch the birds for a while like we were getting a sneak peek at the magical wonder of nature right outside our window. Our daughter began referring to them as “our bird friends.” We were disappointed when the birds left in the fall, but pleased when they returned again the next spring. We assumed they were the same two birds; they looked the same. I realized I didn’t even know what kind of birds these were, so I took a picture and Googled it. They were sparrows.
A perched sparrow.
This is how birding began for my family and me. My wife grew up in a house where a wild birdfeeder was a fixture on her back deck. I grew up in a house where birds were a nuisance that pooped on our cars. But watching this family of sparrows play house right outside our window was fun and fascinating. We wanted more.
Last Christmas Santa brought a birdfeeder to hang next to the birdhouse.
“I’ll hang this up in the spring,” I said, but my wife corrected me.
“Hang it up now, in the winter,” she said. “That’s when our bird friends need food.”
She was right, of course, and this marked a second, deeper step into the world of birding for the Errera clan. A few hours after loading the feeder with seed and hanging it, it was flocked with birds of all types. During one snowy day last winter, our bird friends picked the feeder clean, I ventured out in the middle of a blizzard to refill it, and we all spent the rest of the afternoon watching birds fly through the snow and stop outside our window for a snack. It was one of the most amazing times we’ve shared as a family.
Over the course of the last several months, we’ve identified several of our bird friends. In addition to sparrows, we’ve got white-breasted nuthatches and black-capped chickadees that visit regularly. A group of grackles – black birds with iridescent heads – come in the mornings and afternoons, as do mourning doves, which, although they can fly, prefer to stroll on the ground beneath the feeder and eat what’s fallen. I’ve also got a couple of acrobatic squirrels that have no qualms about snacking alongside our bird friends. Last weekend I saw a chipmunk darting among the mourning doves munching on ground seed. Blue jays fly in occasionally and scare everybody off.
Two of our more notable guests are a red-bellied woodpecker —who usually takes a few pecks at my fence post before filling up with seed and flying off—and a male and female cardinal that my daughter has named Rojo (and “Mrs. Rojo” or “Rojo’s Wife”.) Rojo enjoys it when we fill our feeder with sunflower seeds but he’s very skittish. If you’re not quiet he’ll fly off.
Rojo, our favorite cardinal.
One recent weekend we were doing some yard work when my daughter ran up to me, her eyes wide with excitement, her voice a barely-restrained whisper.
“Look, Daddy! It’s Rojo!” She pointed and there he was, hopping from branch to branch in the wooded lot across the street. We both stood there in silence, watching him. Without saying a word my daughter slipped her arm around my waist and hugged me close. She understood the preciousness of the moment, how blessed we were to be outside on a sunny spring day with a brilliant red bird in our midst. At that moment I felt connected, not just to my daughter, but also to the world itself, to my little patch of suburbia and the not uncommon, yet still amazing wild creatures I share it with.
Becoming a bird-watcher has yielded many rewards. It’s allowed me to see the ordinary in a new, wondrous way. It’s enriched my knowledge of my everyday world and has helped me reconnect with nature in some small way. Plus it’s something we can do as a family that doesn’t cost a lot of money. The birdfeeder was negligible (skin-flint Santa bought a cheap plastic one at Walmart) and birdseed is relatively inexpensive; I’m spending around $20 per month, though the squirrels are eating about half of that. But compared to my cable bill – a total rip-off at nearly $300 per month – bird watching is a bargain. Yeah, there’s only one channel—and it only broadcasts during daylight hours—but the show is live, action-packed, educational, and visually stunning. In the last month, my family has spent more time looking out the window at our bird friends (who now have a choice of three feeders and two houses) than we have looking at the television set. That, in itself, is priceless.
I’ve lived in Northern New Jersey for the better part of 40 years, and it wasn’t until recently that I began to take notice of the natural habit of the region. It’s eye-opening, seeing things you’ve always seen in a new way. Next up – identifying the plants and trees around my home. This may take a while.