Feeding the birds with children

There’s a lesson here … really!

By Simcha Fisher

The first time I took my kids out to hand-feed wild birds, it didn’t go well.

I had hit upon the activity out of desperation at the beginning of spring vacation. The kids were so bored, but I had COVID and was much too tired and contagious for outings. We had long since exhausted the charms of reading books via FaceTime, with and without silly filters, and even the kids were tired of TV.

But maybe we could feed the birds together! We could sit in chairs, safely distanced, enjoying nature, being quiet, doing something wholesome and memorable, and did I mention being quiet?

It didn’t go so well. But that was OK. It was pleasant enough just being outside, and I’m a firm believer in the value of unstructured, unplugged time for kids. We thought we might get a nibble or two, but you really do have to be quiet to attract birds, and my youngest is made out of monkeys. The first few times she squirmed or chattered, I fondly and gently shushed her. But I recalled that our goal was to have a nice time together, so before long I released her, and we dispersed without having fed or even seen a single bird.

We would learn to quiet our minds, to cherish the natural gifts of God in our own backyard.

We agreed it was fun, though, or at least potentially fun. Apparently you really can train birds to get to know you. I talked about our attempt on social media, and people shared photos and videos of their kids’ success in making friends with these wild creatures.

The idea began to take hold. I started to see hand-feeding wild birds as the ideal summer activity. By the end of vacation, I thought, this is how we would greet every morning: We would step into the backyard with a handful of seed, and our feathered friends, who knew our gentle ways, would flock to us like a gang of modern-day St. Francises.

An eager twittering grew in my heart. It was everything I wanted for my kids: A break from screen time, a memorable bonding experience and a naturally contemplative pastime that would sweetly, easily open the gates for all kinds of other goods of the spirit.

The idea took flight. This could be about so much more than birds, I thought. We would learn to quiet our minds, to cherish the natural gifts of God in our own backyard. These tiny creatures who share our space would teach us to break through the thoughtless blur that blinds us to the beauty and order of creation. We’d learn the exquisite diversity not only between species, but between different specific bird friends, and this in turn would teach us to know and care for each other. Maybe we could even say our evening prayers accompanied by God’s own avian choir! Yes! Some long-silent part of my failed home-schooler’s heart let out a whimper of pure longing. Yes: We would feed those birds if it killed us.

So we tried again. And the second time we went out to feed the birds, it also didn’t go very well.

It was more or less a repeat of our first experience, which is to say we sat out in our yard like weirdos with handfuls of birdseed, and nothing happened. Except this time it was chilly and the chairs were damp. So this time, when the birds completely ignored us, our pants got wet; and when the kids made kid noise, I shushed them less fondly and more irritably, because more was at stake. Eventually, the cat came by and started eating the birdseed, and he wouldn’t go away, so we gave up and went inside.

I reminded the kids that it was OK. We were still having fun, potentially. And we could still make it work if we were patient enough, potentially.

I did a bit more research and learned that some people set up clothing and hats outside with birdseed scattered on them, to familiarize the birds with the human form. Still reassuring each other that we were having lots of fun, we did this, too. Then it rained, and the birdseed-covered clothes got wet, and the birds still didn’t care.

And even I had to admit that, as far as childhood wonders go, looking out the window at some wet clothes in the yard does not rank very high.

You may think this is a story about how I had inappropriately high hopes, and then gave up, because life is disappointing. Not at all! Believe it or not, we still intend to spend the rest of our vacation trying to feed the birds a few times a week. I still think it would be cool, and it could work. We may be dumb, but we’re smarter than some bird, I’m sure of it.

But the sight of those empty suits of clothes sitting out in the rain really stuck with me. That is not how I want to be with my kids: Shushing them so as to have potential fun. Pretending to be outside, so as not to scare birds who don’t like us. Hanging all my hopes on being different people than we are. That’s no way to live.

So as summer gets underway, I’m resolving to be OK with the experiences we actually have, and the opportunities that actually come along, rather than the glorified, idealized ones that might possibly be, if only we tried harder, and managed to be quieter, and could make up for all the defects of the past.

We are who we are. We have the life that we have. Maybe the birds will come and maybe they won’t, but we definitely only have a short time together as a family. A better goal for the summer: Less shushing. Less wishing, more enjoying. I do like these kids. I want to enjoy them.

And anyway, they will always cherish the moment we looked at each other and realized our clothes were having more fun than we were. There’s a bonding memory for you!

The truth is moments of sweetness and beauty in childhood will come. But they come like wild birds, not tame ones. They are what they are, and they come when they will, and they can’t always be arranged or planned for. It’s not a bad thing to try for wholesome and meaningful times. But it’s a mistake to be always trying to manage these moments into existence. The secret is to be ready with your hand out, so you can recognize and enjoy them when they do come.

–Simcha Fisher is a freelance writer, the author of “The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning” and blogs at SimchaFisher.com.