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Peek-A-Boo! Birds See You, Too

The red-bellied woodpecker enjoying his meal.
Julie Zickefoose for NPR
The red-bellied woodpecker enjoying his meal.
A cardinal gobbles down Zick Dough.
/ Julie Zickefoose for NPR
Julie Zickefoose for NPR
A cardinal gobbles down Zick Dough.

It's easy to think that bird-watching is a one-way deal. We watch the birds; they keep on doing whatever they were doing. More and more, I'm realizing that the birds are watching us, too. My husband, Bill, was waiting with his family outside an Atlanta hotel for his brother to emerge. He pulled some red holly berries off a hedge and began idly throwing them at his mother and sister. And out of nowhere, a mockingbird swooped in, yellow eyes blazing, wings and tail flashing white. It perched 8 feet away atop the holly hedge, its tail cocked and spread, and glared at Bill as he stood dumbfounded, still poised to lob a berry at his sister.

Mockingbirds are the classic emblem of the South. Their stream-of-consciousness songs pair beautifully with magnolias, bourbon and moonlight. They are also notoriously aggressive about defending their winter food sources. And it sank in on this bird-watcher that the bird had been watching him right back. The mockingbird took a dim view of Bill's frivolous harvest of his holly berries, and it wasted no time letting him know. Y'all ought not to be messin' with my berries.

On a warm winter day recently, I threw the glass patio door open, letting a fresh breeze enter through the screen. Our daughter Phoebe was sitting on the couch when a red-bellied woodpecker hopped up to a feeder on the deck railing. The feeder was empty, and the woodpecker tossed its head from side to side, calling. This caught Phoebe's attention, and she watched the bird to see what it would do next. Noting the open patio door, it flew to the screen and clung there, made direct eye contact with her, and called several times, its voice reverberating through our living room. Phoebe got up, refilled the feeder, and watched the woodpecker settle in to its lunch, thrilling to this little interspecies communication event.

I had an elderly friend in Connecticut who for 50 years threw a coffee can full of birdseed out her back door every morning. No fancy feeders for her, but Alberta had a devoted avian following. As she grew older, she rose a little later in the winter, and she became accustomed to the sound of chickadees tapping on her bedroom window, following her to the kitchen, still tapping, tapping on the window of whichever room she was in, insistently reminding her of their breakfast date.

Every sunny morning my heart lifts to the sound of a bluebird, singing in the dead of winter. A male bluebird, resplendent in pale cobalt and rust, sits right outside the bedroom window and sings until I raise the blind. We make eye contact and he flutters slowly, still singing, toward the deck feeder. I shuffle out with an offering of homemade food, rich with peanut butter and lard. Sometimes he'll land while I'm standing right there.

These things have been going on at our house for 17 years. Individual bluebirds and woodpeckers come and go, but sooner or later they all figure out our morning routine, reach across the species gap, and hook a line right into hearts.

Bird-watchers, watching birds, watching bird-watchers.

Commentator Julie Zickefoose is a nature writer and artist who, as an avid bird feeder, is closely scrutinized by the birds in her yard. She is the author of Letters from Eden.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julie Zickefoose