Should we feed the birds?

Mother robin preparing food for her babies
Mother robin with her babies in the neighbor’s dogwood tree

I’m never more conscious of the privileges I have than when I feed the birds. When I pour black oiled sunflower seed into the large feeder that tops a tall pole of other feeders, I imagine the birds and, inevitably the squirrels, who will gorge on these nutritious seeds, and I wonder about the people whose backyard touches ours. A woman in her late thirties, early forties, named Ebony, prepared a small plot of ground yesterday to grow some vegetables, to “try to save some money,” she said, when I introduced myself to her for the first time. She’s trying to save money by growing food for her family, and I’m feeding the birds.

I fill the smaller cylindrical feeders with the premium food, high quality nuts, dried fruit, and other treats for the smaller birds. These feeders have a screen around them purportedly to keep out the pestering squirrels but still allow small birds access to the very best seed. Like fine dining establishments, I muse. Proper attire required. In other words, no rif raf. No gluttonous squirrels, no swarming starlings, no aggressive blue jays. Only dainty black-capped chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, and crimson cardinals. The elite of birds. The ones everyone loves to watch. You never see anyone say, “oh look at that beautiful starling.” Even the distinctly marked blue jays are no one’s favorite because of their aggressive personalities. So even in my backyard, there is a hierarchy of things.

I wonder what the neighbors think.

There is no getting around that we are in a much better position financially than most of the people on our block. My partner and I both have well-paying jobs, health and retirement benefits, and all the trappings that come with stable employment. Built on a vacant lot less than three years ago, our two-story house stands out from the rest of the neighborhood. We park a late-model Honda and a year-old Subaru in the driveway and build flower gardens of nursery-grown plants. When we moved in, we added not one, but two well-crafted, pre-built 9×18 foot wood sheds to our backyard. These sheds, painted to match our yellow house, stand in stark contrast to the small metal, tin-roofed sheds that dot most of the backyards in the neighborhood.

To top it off, I feed the birds. I say to myself that no one is starving in this neighborhood while the birds are fat and happy. But I know that’s a rationalization. Tom, who lives across the street, does odd jobs around the neighborhood so he can afford to maintain his minimal existence. The man at the end of the block lives in a house that has fallen into deep disrepair. Other people live in houses where the blinds stay closed and are rarely, if ever, seen coming and going. I doubt they’re hiding in there to protect their enormous wealth.

Should I stop feeding the birds, I wonder? Maybe give the money I spend to the Richmond food bank? Would that make a difference?

It would make a difference to me.

I would miss seeing the birds line up on the side fence waiting patiently for their chance to swoop into one of the feeders. I would miss watching the acrobatic squirrels try to figure out how to defeat the squirrel-resistant feeders. I would miss the bird songs that fill the morning air. I would miss the neighborhood cats who are regular visitors to the most active feeding spot in the neighborhood. I would miss the peace and solace these gifts of nature bring me.

I believe the neighborhood would be an uglier place, a more desperate place, a lonelier place, if someone didn’t feed the birds. I can’t be the only one who delights in seeing the red-shouldered hawk circle the block looking for prey. I can’t be the only one who sits on her back porch and listens to the melodic tunes of the Carolina wren or the haunting call of the mourning dove. I can’t be the only one who feels the pulse of the neighborhood beat a little stronger because the birds gather here.

So I keep feeding the birds and I make this promise to myself: every time I go Southern States to buy sacks of bird seed, every time I replenish the feeders with suet, sunflower and special treats, every time I listen to the birds’ song, I will remind myself of the privilege I have and recommit to working for justice in this world, so every one of God’s creatures sleeps with a full stomach and a joyful song.

What do you think about feeding the birds when so many people live in poverty?