To get from my bedroom to the coffeepot every morning, I pass a bank of windows that overlooks two feeders and a birdbath. My early-morning habit is to stand there for a bit, starting the day with my avian neighbors. If it’s migration season, as it is now, I get my coffee and come back for a longer stay, just in case an exotic visitor has arrived during the night.
This winter, a scene playing out beyond those windows chilled my heart. Perched on the thistle-seed feeder were two finches — a goldfinch on one side and, directly across from him, a house finch. The goldfinch was energetically picking at seeds, but the house finch was lethargic, ill-kempt and unnaturally still. His eyes were swollen partly closed. As I watched, he began to rub them, one after another, against the steel grommet that enclosed the feeder opening closest to his perch. The bird was clearly suffering from mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, a highly contagious bacterial infection.
This was an emergency. For songbirds, visiting a feeder or a birdbath is like going to a rave unmasked. If one of them is sick, others will also get sick. And by “others,” I mean more than just birds: Many avian viruses, bacteria and funguses can infect human beings and their pets, too. I’m careful about disinfecting my feeders before refilling them, but care isn’t always enough. Taking down the feeders for a couple of weeks and emptying the birdbath were now the day’s top priorities.
This kind of story tends to make people, at least people who aren’t scientists, believe I must know a lot about birds. In truth, I am no ornithologist, or even a veteran birder. As a rank amateur, all I have going for me is attention, curiosity and a willingness to research whatever I’m puzzled by.
Fortunately, attention, curiosity and a good field guide are really all that’s needed for me to figure out which creatures are visiting my yard and how they’re faring here. Last summer the biggest grasshopper I’ve ever seen in my life flew into my pollinator garden while I was weeding. My bug book taught me her wonderful name: obscure bird grasshopper. She studied me as I pulled weeds, turning to follow my movements, and I studied her studying me.
I find all creatures fascinating, and have ever since I was a little girl, but I pay more attention to them now because I know how much harder my species is making life for all the others.
During my childhood in the 1960s, it was common to see people casually throwing trash out of their car windows, but these days human indifference to the natural world tends to be better hidden, even from ourselves.
Market forces have worked hard to make sure we don’t notice the depredations we’re complicit in: the microplastics that pollute our waterways every time we wash a fleece jacket or a polyester blouse, the toilet tissue that’s destroying the boreal forest, the poisons we spray on our yards — up to 10 times as much, per acre, as farmers use — because they are marketed to us as benign “applications.”
As I waited in line at a garden center last week, I listened to the store owner telling another customer about a “treatment” she could spray on every bush and tree in her yard to “take care of” any kind of bug that might be feeding on them. He didn’t tell her it would also kill butterflies and bees and obscure bird grasshoppers. He didn’t tell her she would also be poisoning the songbirds that would feed on the poisoned insects or the predators that would feed on the weakened songbirds.
Perhaps she’ll remember making a “lantern” from a Mason jar when she was a child, and then maybe she’ll wonder why there are no lightning bugs for her own children to catch. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Many people no longer feel a connection to the natural world because they no longer feel themselves to be a part of it. We’ve come to think of nature as something that exists a car ride away. We don’t even know the names of the trees in our own yards.
Nature is all around us anyway, and I’m not talking about just the songbirds and the cottontail rabbits in any suburban neighborhood. I’m talking about the coyote holed up in a bathroom at Nashville’s downtown convention center; the red-tailed hawks nesting in Manhattan; the raccoon climbing a skyscraper in St. Paul, Minn.; the black bear lounging in a Gatlinburg, Tenn., hot tub; the eastern box turtle knocking on my friend Mary Laura Philpott’s front door.
These encounters remind us that we are surrounded by creatures as unique in their own ways as we are in ours. And our delight in their antics tells us something about ourselves, too. We may believe we are insulated from the natural world by our structures and our vehicles and our poisons, but we are animals all the same.
Thursday is Earth Day, and even if you can’t observe it by planting trees or pulling trash out of nearby streams, this week is a good time to remember that it’s never too late to become a naturalist. And the first step is simply waking up to our own need for the very world we have tried to shut out so completely.
For we belong to one another — to the house finches and the climbing raccoons and the door-knocking turtles and the bathing bears. Recognizing that kinship will do more than keep our fellow creatures safer. It will also keep us safer, and make us happier, too.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.