Bird Watching: A Famly Activity

Rachel Stierle

© Copyright 2018 by Rachel Stierle


Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.
My mother has always been interested in creative hobbies. She loves scrap-booking, knitting, drawing, and sewing. But, this story is not about those hobbies; this story is about my mother's love of photography, and how her interest in photographing the birds in our neighborhood impacted our family.

I don’t remember exactly when it started, but one day I came downstairs for breakfast and found my mother’s camera attached to her tripod, which was positioned in front of the sliding glass door that looked out at our deck. Every so often, my mother would stand at her camera, making noises of glee when she had taken a good picture of the birds that visited us.

Eventually, this hobby developed into a family affair, one that would connect us all in an odd and humorous way.


As my mother’s hobby of photographing the birds developed, more and more I would notice her come home and immediately look outside for any birds. On the weekends, she’d stand watch at the sliding glass door, looking out for any bird activity like a soldier manning her post. The binoculars, which once sat on my father’s desk like an old relic, were now a commonplace sight on the kitchen table or beside the kitchen sink.

We started out having only the Cardinals to admire. The bright red beauties would sit in the trees behind our house, standing out against the green and brown landscape. Occasionally, they would fly up to the deck in search of seed that my mother had laid out on the deck railing. My mother would snap pictures, oohing and aahing over the photos she took. She’d gleefully show my sister and I the photos, and we’d smile at her with feigned interest. My father would joke with her about her hobby, and about the time she spent watching birds instead of doing other things around the house.

But then my father bought my mother a bird feeder. It was a green feeder, one that would close if a heavy, unwanted bird or a squirrel were to try and take a nibble at the seed inside. We hung it from the wooden arches built atop our deck, making sure it was positioned so my mother could easily watch for hungry birds.

Because of the feeder’s proximity to the glass door and the kitchen table, I began to look out for the birds myself. I remember looking out one morning, expecting to see birds, and instead seeing a squirrel climbing that feeder. I remember laughing until I was breathless when I saw the squirrel nearly catapult himself off of that feeder in shock when it closed shut under his weight. I remember my dad began to be more cautious of the squirrels on our deck. He’d persistently—and annoyingly—tap the glass to surprise them, to shoo them away from the bird food and from potentially running off a bird my mother was watching.

But we couldn’t just have one feeder; one feeder turned into two feeders. This time, it was a yellow feeder. My mother had researched birds within our area and had found that the American Goldfinch—a vibrant yellow bird with a black head and wings—was known to reside in the area. Having a yellow feeder attracted them most to our deck. We began to see the birds a lot after that. I remember being so in awe at their beauty and the brightness of their feathers. I began to develop a respect for the birds, and would look out to see who was at the feeder whenever my mother was actively fiddling with her camera.

Eventually, two feeders turned into four. As my mother researched more into the types of birds in our area, she found that some birds preferred suet cage feeders, or feeders that contain a sticky, square block of bird food. This food contained various ingredients, such as peanut butter, oats, fat trimmings, wheat, cornmeal, birdseed, honey, mealworms, dried fruit, and more. The suet feeders would attract birds like the Carolina Wren, the Nuthatch, the Yellow-Bellied Warbler, the Downy Woodpecker, the Black-Capped Chickadee, the Blue Jay, the Eastern Bluebird, and more. My mother saw this as a great way to bring more birds around. It was also a great way for her to learn about Virginia birds—and to teach me about them.

Four feeders quickly turned into six. My mother received a Hummingbird feeder and another bird feeder one Mother’s Day. We hung the new bird feeder in the front of the house, so that she could enjoy the birds both in the sun and shade of the day. She wanted new backgrounds for her photos, and wanted to attract more birds to our yard, since she had found that the bigger birds were scaring off the smaller ones. The new feeder in the front yard attracted the smaller birds, and allowed them to avoid competing with the bigger birds in the backyard. I began to take interest in this feeder, as I could see it from the living room window when I did homework in that room.

However, we were running out of room to hang our feeders.

So, my family turned to our local bird store, Wild Birds Unlimited, for help. We bought my mother a metallic, black bird feeder stand, complete with four hooks to hang feeders from. The top of the feeder stand was interchangeable, and the store offered many different metal bird cut-outs to choose from that you could adorn the stand with. My mother picked out the red Cardinal shape—the bird that first brought her into the world of birds to begin with. We placed this feeder stand by the railing, which was easy to see from my mother’s spot at the glass door.

As time went on, we bought an extension to this stand—a metal arm-like shape with metal leaves attached to it. This would give the birds a place to perch and relax beneath the feeders. I helped my mother pick it out at the Wild Birds store.
Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.
Not long after, my father bought my mother another metal feeder stand. This one had only two hooks, and had a Bluebird cut-out on the top. This one did not have a stand, but rather was meant to be screwed into place in the corner of the deck so that it could hang out over the grassy yard below. We positioned it at the far end of the deck, still in view of my mother’s spot at the glass door. But, if she wanted a better angle, she would move her camera into the family room and open the window that looked right out at the feeder (I’m sitting on the couch, writing this now, and looking out at the feeder for myself).

As more birds arrived, my mother became more enthralled with her hobby. She and my father bought a ceramic dish, and filled it with water for the birds to drink from. My mom would clean it every few days to keep the birds healthy. When the weather turned cold, she and my father bought a bird bath heater so that the water in the dish wouldn’t freeze in the winter and the birds would be able to find something to drink.

I noticed, over time, that my family and I slowly had become immersed in the hobby of bird-watching as well. What we hadn’t realized was how much we had enabled this hobby; we had given her the six feeders, the two feeder stands, and even bird-designed things for the house—such as a bird clock (with actual birds’ pictures instead of the numbers and a chorus of quiet bird chirping noises at the top of every hour), bird-patterned pillows, both handmade and bought bird paintings, and metal artwork of birds.

However, my family had also changed in attitude towards my mother’s hobby. My father began to outright scare off the squirrels who had climbed the deck in search of food. If he caught one on the feeder, he would no longer tap on the glass to get their attention; he would slide the door open to scare them off. As they became used to his presence, he had to develop new tactics to scare them away; he would hiss, physically chase them off the deck, stomp his feet, and holler at them (needless to say, it was a humorous sight to see). He had become protective of my mother’s hobby, protective of the birdseed and suet that kept the birds visiting our yard. And, when he would see birds in the back, my father would text my mother what he saw, or holler for her to come take a photo if it was a rare or new bird.

My change was a bit more subtle, but I became just as immersed as my mother and father. As I sat eating breakfast each morning at the kitchen table, I would look out at the deck and watch the birds feasting away on our feeders. I would ask my mother about the birds, which ones she had seen that day, which ones she had taken photos of. It got to the point that I myself would use the binoculars, and would squeal in delight at the sight of a new or rare bird. I have found myself standing before her camera, zooming in on birds and taking photos. Just recently, I was sitting at the table, looking out at the deck and trees while my mother was busy zooming in on a Blue Jay. When I gasped and called for her attention, I pointed to the other side of the deck, where an Eastern Bluebird was busy eating at the suet feeder. We hadn’t had a Bluebird this close to the deck before, and only caught brief glimpses of it in the distance. I watched, overjoyed, as my mother took her first close-up photos of the Bluebird.

Before, I used to feign interest when my mother would show me her photos or talk about the needs of various types of birds. But now, I too scare away the squirrels (though not to the extent to which my father does; I don’t want the neighbors thinking I’m crazy). Now, I listen to my mother’s bird conversations. I care about the birds that visit my yard. I myself bird-watch.

It’s been a few years since my mother first became interested in the birds, but since the start of her hobby we have noticed an increase in bird visitors of all kinds—we’ve had our favorite, the Carolina Wren, which will sit on the corner of the deck and sing his lovely song early in the morning most days before hiding underneath the grill by midday. We’ve had two kinds of woodpeckers—the Downy and the Red-Bellied woodpeckers. We’ve had Goldfinches, House Sparrows, House Finches, timid Juncos, greedy Blue Jays, scarce Catbirds, rare Mockingbirds, poop-machine Robins, sharing and kind Bluebirds, rare Warblers, a lone Chickadee, a lone Nuthatch, brown-speckled European Starlings, greasy and iridescent Grackles, and occasionally a hungry hawk. In the spring until the beginning of fall, we will hang out the Hummingbird feeder for a few gorgeous (but territorial) Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds to grace us with their presence. We’ve become a bird colony, of sorts. Cardinals and Goldfinches and Blue Jays have become commonplace outside our home.

I wouldn’t be able to name any of these birds (save a few obvious ones like the Blue Jay, Cardinal, and Hummingbird), if it were not for my mother. If not for her, I would not have experienced these birds or their quirky feeding rituals. If not for my mother, my family wouldn’t have become so involved with the nature around our home that we know to throw out mealworms for the Bluebirds when we see them around, or to toss out peanuts when the Blue Jay comes. If not for my mother, I wouldn’t have gotten to laugh hysterically at the sight and sounds of my father chasing off the neighborhood squirrels. If not for my mother, I wouldn’t have become obsessed with looking out every morning for a few minutes, trying to count all the different types of birds I see before I go to school.

What started as a hobby that my mother became interested in slowly became one that my whole family participates in. It has brought us a bit closer together, in a way. Sometimes we will still joke with my mother about her love of birds, how some days she might spend dawn until dusk standing at the sliding glass door with her eye into her camera. But I’m just glad she’s found something she loves. I’m glad that now I can enjoy it with her.

My name is Rachel Stierle, and I am a graduating senior at George Mason University. Though I have never published a story before, I feel that being a writer is something I would love to continue to do for the rest of my life. I enjoy writing nonfiction and fiction stories of all types, but I mostly focus on writing creative nonfiction. I was inspired to publish this story by my Nonfiction professor, who has given me nothing but encouragement this entire school semester. I was also inspired to publish this story because of my mother, who is the real inspiration behind this story. 

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