By Mike Lunsford
Many winters ago, I stood in a short line at a local feed store with a bag of sunflower seed over my shoulder and a box of suet cakes tucked under my arm. As I waited for the cashier to ring up a lady in a sweater and stocking cap, I noticed a man in overalls who wandered the shop’s clutter of mole traps, heat lamps, and dog food bags.
As the clerk made the change, the man came up behind me — a bag of sweet feed in his hands — and with apparently little else to do, he asked why I fed the birds. “This time of year, they need a little help,” I said, “Besides, we love to watch them from our windows.”
As if my last statement was a confession of idleness, willful unemployment, or plain simplemindedness, he told me that I was wasting my time and money, that wild birds didn’t need to be fed, and that they should fend for themselves. He spoke as if laziness among bird populations was a growing national problem as if they were on the government dole. Being more polite than perhaps I am now, I told him that he chose to feed horses, and I chose to feed birds, and I didn’t see much of a difference in the two, except for the size.
Now, all these years later, I still feed birds, and there’s not a day goes by that I don’t make it a morning’s priority to slip on my broken-down boots to slide out our back door holding a scoop of seed in one hand and an old plastic pitcher of water in the other. I top off the feeders in the yard with the seed and fill a small leaf-shaped bowl with the water. No matter how cold it is, I leave the bowl on the railing of my little cabin’s walkway.
Since the bowl is shallow, it sometimes freezes in a few minutes, but, at least for a while, the heartiest of its visitors — usually titmice and chickadees — brave a growing berg of ice to dip their beaks and swallow its chilly offering. On occasion, since I am also in the habit of writing at a north-facing window each day, I see a bird or two take a “polar plunge” of sorts, preening in a frigid bath.
It is a common practice for rural and city folks alike to feed wild birds. One source tells me that Americans spend no less than $4 billion a year to do it, and it is getting considerably more expensive every day. But birds also need water, and supplying it, although a hassle in the winter, is just as important as leaving out seed and suet.
Whether the birds around our place become dependent on us for it or not, our feeders and that bowl will always be full. I’m not hearing any complaints.
Mike Lunsford is a freelance columnist, feature writer, and photographer, primarily for the Terre Haute Tribune-Star and Terre Haute Living magazine. The author of seven books lives in Parke County with his wife, Joanie. Contact Lunsford at firstname.lastname@example.org.