Not a still life: What birds at my winter feeder taught me

It has snowed in Memphis, but not enough to warrant making tracks through the pristine polar environment after weathering a bout of the flu.  Instead, I am perched at my kitchen table with a cup of hot coffee and cream, a pair of binoculars, and my ancient National Geographic bird guide.  Outside my winter window, the birds flocking to my feeders have engaged me for hours.


Here are the things I am reminded that I knew but had forgotten: 


Finches are some of the feistiest birds on the block. I’ve seen goldfinches stand their ground, hissing and billowing out their wings to scare away larger juncos and sparrows.  A simple vine a mere half-inch from the ground can make all the difference in the world to a dove with fluffed feathers bloused over its feet to get warm.  The glimpse of yellow in the spread of a Pine Siskin’s tail just glows.  The mottled border between the white and charcoal of a junco’s plumage resembles cloud edges.  How gosh-dern cute are chickadees!  (If my sweet pup, a schnauzer/poodle mix, were a bird, she’d be a chickadee.) How beautifully rich are all the shades of brown in nature’s rainbow.  How a cardinal simply defines the color red.


Here are the things that, even after decades of birding, I just noticed today:  


Chickadees prefer the red kidney beans to all the other oil seeds in my feeder mix.  Larger animals—the cardinals, sparrows, and squirrels—seem to act almost like “granivore engineers” because when they land on the ground, numerous smaller birds alight nearby attracted to the detritus that falls from their seed-cracking efforts.  Cottontails are fastidious about maintaining the bottoms of their long hind feet free from snow.  Songbirds on the ground will apparently hop around on one leg, switching them out occasionally, presumably to conserve body heat.  After cracking them open, cardinals eat black sunflower seeds by stripping out the meat from first one side of the shell, then the other.  The “stripe” on the top of a White-throated Sparrow’s head can actually be more of a zig-zag, a la current barber fashion.  The subtlety and gradation of hues that shine out softly from the face and breast of a Mourning Dove are worthy of Rembrandt.


Here are the questions I have:  


When all the birds startle at once, is it sometimes just because the flightiest one among them jumped the gun at something innocuous?  How does a tiny icicle ever begin to form on the tail of a goldfinch or the crest of a titmouse?  Is the Carolina Wren, an infrequent visitor to the feeder, dominant to all the finches because of its long sharp bill or its pugnacious personality (or both)?  What is the evolutionary advantage of having cream-colored eyeliner on a squirrel but black face markings on a cardinal?


Above all, how would life be different if I could concentrate this much attention on every important thing in my life?