With all the snow this winter, I have been attentive to putting bird food in the feeder outside our kitchen window. But with my broken wrist, the food ran out.
"We need to take the rest of the bird food and put it in the feeder," I said to Roger, pointing at the bag on the counter. "It's snowing again, and the birds have nothing to eat."
"They can eat at Fran and Richard's feeder," he said. Fran and Richard are our neighbors down the street. They are not so close. Would the birds know to go there?
Roger poured the rest of the food into the feeder, because of course he was joking about sending hungry birds to Fran and Richard.
All winter, I, the urban-suburbanite, had been marveling at how long the seed lasted when we poured it out. At first, I chased off the fat red squirrel who beelined for the food, fearful he would take it all and hoard it in his nest, but I found I didn't to worry. He would come, take his supply and leave.
None of the birds took all the food. Sometimes cardinals would chase off the smaller birds, but once the cardinals were done, plenty was left over for the wrens, finches and chickadees who would join the red headed woodpecker for a feed.
The food would last and last.
But this latest refill attracted crows. Two crows ate while a big black crow sat on the roof of the feeder, keeping guard. They were ominous looking, big and shiny. Oh dear, I thought, birds so big and smart are going to eat all the food and none will left for the little birds.
This was not true. The crows ate and flew away. Soon all the hopping and perky little birds had flocked to the feeder, and when they were gone, the squirrel came and ate.
I can't stop marveling at this. The birds, the squirrels and the mice who no doubt come at night, treat this food as manna from heaven: provision for today. Yet why wouldn't they hoard? From what I understand, cold and snow take quite a toll on birds in terms of mortality.
Perhaps the real question is how I've become so indoctrinated into an ideology of hoarding that it seems amazing to me that some group of animals--the "stronger," of course--wouldn't come in a strip away every last tiny seed from the feeder in the first hour it was put out, so as to secure themselves--but they don't. Outside of the grasshopper and locust hordes familiar to readers of the Little House books and the Bible or the relentless assault of the killer ants in The Poisonwood Bible, animals don't strip a landscape bare. As we know from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, animals can devour each other in ruthless and ingenious way, most of them grisly, but they do this--primarily, though let's not forget the wanton killing of the fox or weasel in a henhouse-- on the basis of need, not greed.
I learn so much living in this rural area just by looking out my windows. I like to imagine myself, like Coleridge or Wordsworth or, for that matter, Beatrix Potter, living in an American equivalent of the English Lake District, and while we don't have as many lakes, we do have hills and I do have a view of a small lake from my bedroom window. But I digress.
What I learn from nature is, as with the injured crows, the natural world is not the "dog eat dog" monolith we are led to believe. It's much more complex and nuanced. Thus, there's simply no firm basis for it being unequivocally "natural" that the "strong" humans in our culture take and hoard vast swathes of resources, leaving others sick, hungry and fearful.
Environmentalists and Native Americans have been saying this forever, of course, but there's no greater teacher than the experiential. I read the Sermon on the Mount with new insight, and meanwhile Hopkins's poem "God's Grandeur" keeps running through my mind: I see in the birds that "dearest freshness deep down things" and am reminded that over the "bent" world "the Holy Spirit broods" with warm breast and ah! bright wings.