The year of COVID lockdown increased my drinking, my blood pressure, and my weight, and it reminded me that, although I love my home, I need to be far away from it, traveling, for eight or 10 weeks a year. But the routines of the pandemic also gave me clues to the nature of nature, and did so with a force such that no day of snorkeling off Mooréa or hiking in the Hindu Kush ever had done. (Don’t let me exaggerate my taste for global adventure, though: My idea of fun mostly runs to prowling the backstreets of Tokyo for ramen shops.) It is to the local birds I’ve observed over the past 15 months that I owe a philosophical, even spiritual, gain.
Our deck had hosted bird feeders since we moved to the fringes of Boulder County five years ago, but during the pandemic I doubled the number. When the traffic peaked, I was buying $100 of shelled seed per month for what I came to call the Ridiculously Expensive Sunflower Seed Cafe. Each dawn brought the fussing and cheeping of breakfast to my bedroom-window feeder: goldfinches, house finches, chickadees, northern flickers, and the little, pointy, darting nuthatches.
Moving to the living room brings into view the full feeder array, through big windows. There are two squirrel-proof feeders for seed, a squirrel-proof cage for suet and mealworm cakes, a sort of hanging picnic table for more seedcakes that I usually leave empty because it was mobbed by squirrels, two hummingbird feeders, and, finally, a jury-rigged contraption that supplies dried corn to the squirrels, for they are such acrobats that I don’t have the heart to entirely shut them out.
By the end of last year, I had counted 33 bird species. Ten or so came for the seed and suet, and the rest revealed themselves as nearby residents or migratory part-timers. The most impressive visitor was a great horned owl who landed on our roof at dusk and sat for 10 minutes. The most thrilling was a merlin, a compact, superb falcon that flies like a Spitfire and grabs songbirds out of the air. For a week or so, a Swainson’s hawk dropped a fat prairie dog each morning on the top of a telephone pole on the corner of our yard for two offspring to rip apart. The most shocking drama happened at a feeder, when a flicker attacked a finch until it dropped, broken-winged, to the deck and then to the stones 10 feet below.
I did not attempt to rescue the gravely injured bird. This is not an Instagram account. Nor, however, is it about the clichéd tooth-and-claw facts of nature. No, what the year of quotidian Staring Out of Windows blessed me with was an understanding that the life of birds is mostly equally quotidian. Watching them for up to an hour each day, it was clear that birds experience the world with an ordinariness both consoling and worrying. Yes, I love the beauty of them, especially the way the male goldfinches alter their brown winter livery to buttery and then canary yellow as they prepare to woo the ladies. But what I really love is the way birds just go about their business.
I was aided in this contemplation by a 2020 book called Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind, by an Australian philosopher of consciousness and biology. Peter Godfrey-Smith is a scuba diver who has spent a great deal of time watching sea creatures in their habitats, trying to understand what their everyday routines say about the evolution of mind. Mind, in Godfrey-Smith’s conception, is the combination of sensory input and nervous-system processing that yields, on various branches of the evolutionary tree, complex, useful states such as fear, attention, protectiveness, and curiosity.
The fact that these states are instinctive in no way diminishes, for Godfrey-Smith, their status as states of mind and, therefore, in the more complex creatures, as some form of consciousness. And the fact that animals are probably not self-aware in the human sense does not mean that there is not, as philosopher Thomas Nagel famously wrote about consciousness in bats, an essential awareness of what it is “like to be that organism,” even if understanding that is ultimately unknowable to us.
Godfrey-Smith is fascinated by the behavior of octopuses, whose evolution branched from our own a gazillion years ago, but he also describes several encounters with a particular banded shrimp that had lost one of its larger claws. The creature, territorial in its habits, was going about its arthropod business in the same place on several of Godfrey-Smith’s dives. It was always up to something, and often interested in the arrival of the professor. “I am now used to the idea of some degree of contact with implausible animals,” he writes, “but I was taken aback by the look full in the face given to me by this shrimp.”
There is no room here to convince you that Godfrey-Smith isn’t romantically crediting these creatures with an awareness they don’t have. He is not Aesop-ing them, Beatrix Potter-ing them, or TikTok meme-ing them. He is saying, I think, something subtler—that such anthropomorphizing (although irresistible, especially when animals have a high companion utility) is a form of appropriation that obscures the real nature of creatures, even shrimp. That nature is part of both their otherness and, since we occupy the same tree of life, also their sameness. There are patterns of behavior, of mind, that must overlap with our own.
I read Metazoa and stared out my windows. The thing about birds is that, although they eat our food, they remain wild, even in the city. Yet we can recognize, if not their dinosaur minds, at least the textures of their lives. To give just one example: Juvenile northern flickers, having just left the nest, land on my railing with a bedraggled, slept-in-too-late sort of aspect to their feathers. They sit two feet from the feeders, squawking for their parents to satisfy them. I wondered, having watched my own kids at a similar stage, if I was going too far to see teenage entitlement as an evolutionary trait, going back at least to the time of the T. rex.
Seeing this brought me solace, because it suggested a connection with other experiences, even during lockdown. It also occurred to me that maybe this is the meaning of life: simply that it experiences the world. But if that’s true, what does our environmental destruction of the world do to not just the quantity but also the quality of experience? What does factory farming do to the experiences of animals of high meat utility? What does all this imply about our local food ecology, about what we should cook and eat? It demands mindfulness about the possibility of other minds, at the very least.
In addition to Metazoa, I began rereading certain American poets preoccupied by the experiences of animals: in particular, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver. Toward the end of lockdown, I bought Berry’s collection called The Peace of Wild Things. Many of the poems are set in Kentucky and concern the creatures on his farm and its surrounds. I am no more religious than I was before the pandemic—which is not at all—but have returned often to these words, as I watched the Swainson’s hawks and other birds, from Berry’s poem “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”:
When they said, “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” I told them, “He’s dead.” And when they told me, “God is dead,” I answered, “He goes fishing every day in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.”