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An American Goldfinch perches on a branch in Port Allen's Rivault Park.

Emily Dickinson said something wise when she called hope “the thing with feathers.” Or so I’ve been reminded in this anxious winter as I look out my window and find cheer from the birds at my feeders.

I had neglected my feeders last year, finally making time to fill them last November to attract a few goldfinches. Goldfinches are my favorite birds. They usually show up at my feeders around Thanksgiving and stay until Mardi Gras, though my reference guide, “Attracting Birds to Southern Gardens,” says they “often remain in the southern range of their winter quarters until May.”

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These tiny birds are mostly olive grey in winter with a few strokes of yellow. The white tips on their wings, as sharp as the lines of a calligrapher’s brush, never fail to impress me. Goldfinches grow yellower as the weather warms, offering a mental bridge to spring. What they show me, I guess, is a sense of the basic continuity of life, even in troubled times.

But if I seemed more than ready for goldfinches to brighten the closing days of autumn last year, they weren’t quite ready for me. They remained absent from my feeders through Thanksgiving and beyond, which soured my mood even more as I spent hours in an armchair by the window while recovering from a mild case of COVID-19. The only winged visitors attending my convalescence were a few chickadees who descended from a nearby sycamore, floating as lightly as ash toward perches at my tube feeders.

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December arrived, but the goldfinches had not.

Then one afternoon, as I was standing by the Christmas tree and feeling blue at the way a pandemic had scrambled the holidays, a tiny scrap of school-bus yellow caught the corner of my eye. A lone goldfinch had discovered the hulled sunflower seed at my feeding station.

Word spread among his clan, and within a week, dozens of goldfinches were swarming my feeders. They’re still around, joined at the feast by purple finches, house finches, cardinals and jays. I salt the ground with sunflower seed a couple of times each week so that even the mourning doves, too big for my feeders, can enjoy the action.

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That’s made my birdseed bill almost as big as my grocery bill, but I figure it’s cheap medicine. As a man of a certain age, I take my blood pressure each morning, which has led to an interesting finding. When I slip on the cuff while watching the birds, my readings are 20 points lower.

In a world so full of problems right now, an interest in backyard birds might seem like an indulgent exercise in escapism. But what I feel as I scan my feeders each morning isn’t escape, exactly, but engagement with a world much bigger than my private worries.

That can’t be a bad thing in this strange season, and I figure it couldn’t hurt.


Email Danny Heitman at danny@dannyheitman.com.