Head of School’s Notebook — My Father’s Porch


On the porch off the kitchen at my father’s home in Connecticut is a series of birdfeeders. To sit in that kitchen on a winter morning is to be witness to a never-ending series of comings and goings. So ravenous is the local avian population that my father refills the quite substantial feeders each morning.

I sat in that kitchen for several days during the Thanksgiving holidays and watched every manner of winged creature visit our porch. We all ate breakfast together it seemed. Phoebes, Nuthatches, Cardinals, Goldfinches, Chickadees, Doves, Blue Jays, various other Thrushes, even a late migrating Mockingbird made an appearance. Occasionally a Blue Bird stopped by the suet along with Downey and Red-headed woodpeckers. Songbird populations are down all over the country, but you wouldn’t know it after a morning on Day Road in Pomfret.

These birds had different approaches to the business of feeding. Some arrived and took their time filling their craws and shooing away potential competitors for the seed. The Blue Jays were particularly possessive in this regard. Once full they would fly off to store their booty in some other location, or perhaps to eat alone.

Others like the petite yet husky Chickadees flew in, took a single seed, and then flew off. It was hard, frankly, not to judge the proceedings and develop favorites. Some breeds are remarkably gracious and seemingly content with everyone getting their due portion. Others are quick to try to knock feeding birds off their perches to get a larger share of the seed. And honestly, it was easy to put the greedy Jays at the bottom of the “favorites” list. The biggest and least principled, they took far more than their fill. And the only time they ever left the trough was when a Cooper’s Hawk or other raptor happened to fly by.

At the top of the list, though, has to be the Nuthatch. These little birds are constructed to hang on the sides of trees, so they look a little funny when they land on a flat horizontal surface. They are small but you wouldn’t know it from the sound they make when they start pounding on a sunflower seed. You can feel the impact of that powerful beak inside the house. It’s absolutely phenomenal to behold—a feat of strength and resolve that is all the more captivating because of the diminutive size of the bird and seed.

To watch all of this—beyond any amusement or entertainment—is to recognize the necessity beyond the ritual. My father says the birds would be fine if he didn’t fill those feeders day after day, and I’m sure he’s right. But the industry and resolve of each bird is the only means they have to ensure they live another day. They seem rather joyful to the observing eye as they dart back and forth, and they might well be. Who doesn’t like to eat?

But they are also living on the edge, feeding themselves to fend off the cold, moving quickly not for the benefit of a watcher like me but to be ever-ready to escape a potential threat, carrying a seed into a thick bush or onto the twisted trunks of a bittersweet vine to find shelter from the many dangers whilst savoring a sustaining seed.

I’d like to believe these birds and their behavior have something to teach us. That’s part of why I like to watch them each morning. Maybe it’s the way they can make the necessary efforts of the day look like an exuberant circus of sustenance. Maybe they have figured out how to make the seemingly mundane act of nourishing themselves and their families something more, an aerial ballet of sorts. They sure make eating seeds look like a savory experience. But if there is more to their behavior, I don’t really know.

I will ask myself the same question, though, the next time I sit at the table in the kitchen. There just seems to be something there for all of us, something those songbirds are communicating. Like Norman MacLean said of the rocks in a river, “Some of the words are theirs.” I just wish I knew the language….