Food chain

If you feed wild birds long enough,  you begin to feel as if you are doing something important. Especially during the winter, when the mercury flirts with zero and every natural food source  is blanketed in snow,  the birds come to depend on your largesse.

In return, they reliably offer pleasures only sporadically available in the realm of people: beauty,  vitality, grace, and — if you count the squirrels — humor.  It is enough to make you, an ordinary human being, feel necessary in the world,  because you are doing some good. You feel the solidity of your place in the family of things, in the words of poet Mary Oliver.*

And so it is hard when a hawk visits your feeders to take for itself, and from you, something you have come to cherish.  I first experienced this on my farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, home to a variety of fierce and gorgeous raptors.  I  would go out on a winter morning to restock the feeders and find evidence of the past day’s kill:  the pile of feathers, the crimson snow.  cardinalinbranches

On the worst day,  a hawk took a rare and treasured visitor,  a female cardinal who, with her mate, had  brightened the dreary December dawns and dusks with visits to the sunflower seed feeder outside my bay window.  He left her black mask, hanging limply from her orange beak.  He broke my heart, and I hated him for it.

I have mellowed in the years  since, acknowledging that the hawks must eat, too.  And that if I am going to make myself an artificial link in the food chain, I must accept that they are a natural one.  In feeding the smaller birds, I have inadvertently laid the hawks a banquet, and occasionally, they will dine.

2jaysBirds know when a predator is near, so when the jays sounded their raucous alarm on a recent snowy day,  I suspended my chores to investigate.  My seed-strewn deck, usually dense with feeding juncos, was empty.  The peanut butter log — a favorite of the nuthatches and woodpeckers –swayed vacant in the cold wind.  There was not a bird to be seen on the suet cakes. My little avian village had suddenly become a ghost town. Even the squirrels were gone.

And then,  not 10 feet away through my kitchen window,  I saw why:


The hawk  — likely a sharp-shinned but possibly a Cooper’s — seemed less hungry than cold.  As I watched, it shifted on the fence pickets, lifting first one foot and then the other into the warmth of its downy breast feathers.


It looked disoriented, and I wondered if the wind and snow had forced it down.  It stayed for a long time,  giving me every chance to record a predatory beauty that now seemed strangely vulnerable:

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By the time our photo session ended, I felt tender toward the hawk; I wanted to help.  So I headed out with a few pieces of the raw ground meat I feed my hens as a treat,  thinking that my offering might save the hawk some energy and a smaller bird its life.   But then,  it was gone.  And for a long while, the fence where the hawk had perched looked too empty, and for a few minutes more, my yard felt too still.

Then, I heard them coming back,  saw them descending from the snow-flecked sky and the bare branches:  the juncos and finches, the jays and woodpeckers, the nuthatches and doves.  The flickers and grosbeaks and chickadees.  And the squirrels, of course.  And so I went to get more seed and suet,  remembering my place,  no less than their own, in the food chain.

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*Mary Oliver died today, January 17, at 83.  Her lyrical yet simple poetry about the natural world — and our place in it — is a singular treasure.   Exquisite attention, curiosity and appreciation — qualities we all might emulate — permeate Oliver’s work.  In When Death Comes, she wrote: “When it’s over, I want to say all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement.”    She was;  she was. 



  1. Thank you over the ocean seeing your experience match my experience sharing the same.. Love the way you write and the photo… Look at Hortus Balkonien to see birds in Germany


    1. Thank you! It’s lovely to hear from a kindred spirit across such a vast expanse. I will indeed look at Hortus Balkonien.


  2. wildchild47 · · Reply

    lovely post – not only for the images, which are wonderful, but also for the economy in coming to understand, we are a part of a much larger, and greater whole – and even in death, as is natural, there is a stability in the necessity, to maintain the balance; perhaps this opportunity, to truly observe your visiting raptor, was a way, a path for you to heal your broken heart. Time and distance, and then, wow – what a gorgeous hawk! And yes, it does seem like it was suffering for the cold. It’s easy to forget that “predators” are subjected to all of the elements and most certainly don’t lead easy lives too; so generous to remember all creatures great and small share the commonality of blood under the skin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your response is so lovely and thoughtful, so insightful and eloquent. Thank you. Those long minutes observing the hawk were an enduring gift, certainly no less memorable than the many experiences I have had with creatures who may become the hawk’s prey.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. how kind to feed
    the birdies
    of all sizes 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure I get the better end of it. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  4. What a great article! I love your perspective. And your photos are GORGEOUS! Wow! Thanks for sharing. p.s. Your squirrel humor comment made me smile. I often am witness to the antics of squirrels; I meditate daily in front of a big picture window facing the backyard and often get to see the squirrels as they go about their lives, so yes, your humor comment struck a chord.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Bird-lovers seem to fall into two tribes about squirrels; I’m with you in appreciating them, especially Chloe, who has starred in several posts. They can be very smart as well as funny and, of course, beautiful: I’m partial to black squirrels, especially.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I just recently got into bird feeding and watching. I love the birch feeder. I want one of those! Birches are my favorite trees. Your photographs are beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! Bird-feeding and -watching are lovely pastimes that pay back many times over the modest investments we make. The log feeder is an easy DIY project, as are many other bird feeders and homes. Have fun!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Do you have any links/suggestions on the DYI project? I will search online as well.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. If you click on the “restock the feeders” link within this post, you’ll see rough instructions for the hanging log feeder. Nothing more than drilling one-inch diameter holes in several locations around it, and smaller holes beneath into which dowels may be inserted for perches. An eye hook in the top and it’s ready to hang. I traditionally stuff the holes with a mixture of peanut butter and hard shortening (such as Crisco) with cornmeal as a binder. It’s a suet alternative for insect-eaters. Many more good ideas online!

          Liked by 3 people

        2. Lovely. Thank you!!!!! I am inspired 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

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