In late winter or early spring the chickadee flock frequenting my feeder begins to break up as the birds pair off for mating. Only two (with their offspring) will occupy a given territory, and during summer those few may rarely visit a feeder; there are too many superior delicacies around.
A few summers ago I decided not to maintain a feeder and, because of other preoccupations, scarcely noticed any chickadees on the property. They were the furthest thing from my mind when, on a warm August day at a time of extraordinary personal distress, I happened to be standing outside in a small clearing. There was no brush or other bird cover immediately at hand. Suddenly a chickadee came out of nowhere and alighted on the fence railing four or five paces in front of me.
Standing still, I watched for several seconds as it regarded me with an apparently intense interest. Then, instead of veering away as I expected, it flew with its soft, stutter-step flight straight toward me, dipping characteristically a few inches in front of my nose before rising as if to land on my bald pate. But, with a slight hesitation, it seemed to have second thoughts (there's not much of a perch up there), and passed on behind me. This unlooked-for gesture from a "long-lost friend" a moment of mutual recognition recalling an earlier conversation touched me deeply. In the flush of affection I felt for the creature granting me this unexpected interview, I found an easing of my pain. Its life was so free, so far removed from my own problems, yet it was so precious . . .
"That's very nice, but do you really glorify this encounter as part of a meaningful conversation? And do you believe the chickadee was responding to your inner condition at the time?"
Well, hardly. I am serious and I include myself in the rearmost rank when I say we have scarcely learned to converse with nature (or, for that matter, with each other). But, nevertheless, one can at least glimpse the beginnings of conversation here.
The very first and perhaps the most important conversational step we can take may be to acknowledge how we have so far failed to assume a respectful conversational stance. For example, how much of my activity in feeding the birds by hand is driven by my self-centered pleasure in their attentions, rather than by selfless interest in who they are and what they need? To ask such a question is already to have shifted from manipulator to listener.
But, no, I would not claim that the chickadee on the fence railing was sympathizing with my troubles. Of course, because of my ignorance, and because the chickadee is a speaking presence, I cannot say absolutely that it was not, at some level of its being, responding to my inner condition, or that it was not the agent of some sort of Jungian "synchronicity." But I am skeptical, and such things are in any case wholly beyond my knowledge. So I leave them alone.
What I do know is that the chickadee was, in an obvious and unproblematic sense, responding to me in its, expressive, chickadee-like manner. And this manner was partly familiar to me because I have paid attention to the chickadees in my neighborhood. The behavior, even if unexpected, was not altogether strange to me. I could say, "Yes, if a chickadee were to gesture in my direction, that is how it might do it; it was just like a chickadee" and in saying this I could bring to mind much about the chickadee's way of speaking itself into the world. This in turn gives me something to respond to, something to respect, something to make a proper place for both in the world and in myself.
And, yes, maybe even something to invite in certain directions through attentive, reverential conversation. I do still occasionally feed the birds from my hands. This is a behavior they would never engage in if there were no humans in the world, but I have yet to see that it in any way diminishes them. I am more inclined to think the opposite. Chickadees are known to have a great curiosity about other creatures, along with a particular affinity for humans, and giving a few of them a little room to explore this affinity does not seem such a bad thing.
There are, of course, appropriate limits. Personally, I draw the line when the chickadees try to use my mustache as nesting material.