Real life: Feeding birds, finding love

Reader's Digest Editors

When Tista Sen's husband discovered his love of feeding birds, she brushed it off as a phase. But it soon came to prove lifechanging, and marriage saving. 

My husband was no longer the man I had married. He had become grumpy and short-tempered

He works in publishing, an industry that has its own share of problems. A self-made man, he worries that our sons have been handed too much. Our marriage was facing the familiar strains of midlife. All of this was getting him down. 

Until he installed the bird feeder.

“But that’s so messy,” I said. In Mumbai, India, where we live, apartments are tiny. And while we have a little veranda, we do not have birds, and I did not see the point of putting up a bird feeder on our small open space to feed nonexistent creatures. To try to feed birds in a city that’s rife with starvation and poverty also seemed too privileged a notion.

mumbair birds

We live in India,” I reminded him.

“Birds belong to the world,” he replied. And that was that.

So up it went, an ugly contraption he bought online. It was transparent, cylindrical and odd-looking. Grain was filled, and I watched sceptically as it stood solitary and defiant on our veranda in a city where I neither saw birds fly nor come to roost. Our lives were busy. We worked hard. We spoke less. We watched too much television. We spent many evenings answering emails and texts. Our sons were grown-up and had their own lives. We had ours.

One lonely morning in a long succession of lonely mornings, I caught my husband’s eye over the newspaper. He was signalling to me in an animated fashion, pointing to our veranda. I turned. And there it was: a bright green parrot with a red beak perched on the ledge of the bird feeder. The parrot cocked his head. We cocked ours. The parrot studied us. We studied him. And then he settled down and dug in. I glanced at my husband. He beamed in response.

"I turned. And there it was: a bright green parrot"

And soon our mornings became a bit more than the rush to catch the bus. There was anticipation until our winged visitors would arrive. One morning, a cocky sparrow came to us.

“Did you know they are almost extinct in this city?” my husband whispered.

We waited to see which feathered friend would drop in next. 

“That’s a little sunbird!” I exclaimed with disbelief. “In Mumbai!”

And suddenly the grumpy man’s face lit up, his stress lines disappearing. Could this be a new him? Soon there was a sprightly quality to his mornings. Our mornings. In the busy monotony of our lives, we were parents once again. Except that this time he was the mother.

feeding birds

Our mornings became the hours I most looked forward to. We exchanged far more than a glance. It was like the intrepid excitement of opening our doors to new friends and having a meal ready. Will they come? Will the food be enough? Will they enjoy their dinner and come back for more?

He spent many a Sunday on the Internet researching birds, bird food and eating patterns. When do they feed? How much? Why so little? Our conversations often began with a bird fact. A typical songbird sings 2,000 times a day, for example.  One very windy Sunday, as we both gazed out from our little veranda, he seemed pensive. “Is it your job?” I asked anxiously, eager to help.

“No,” he said, glaring at me for being so hopelessly insensitive. “There hasn’t been a bird visit in the last 24 hours. I’ve been watching.”

“Perhaps it needs a GPS tracker,” I said jokingly. I mean, they were just birds. I was the wife.

"Can you be jealous of birds? They commanded his attention more than I did"

That evening, I found that he’d moved the feeder to another location.

“It’s easier for them to find it,” he said. “They need to be comfortable. After all, they come to eat.”

Can you be jealous of birds? They commanded his attention more than I did. I began glaring at the pigeons and muttering cuss words at the noisy crow. “You are upstaging me,” I muttered to the cooing dove. I felt like Cruella de Vil from Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, devious plotter and coldhearted criminal. I was coming in the way of their happiness. And his.

hobby rediscover love

One morning while my husband was away, I sat in my little nook nursing a coffee. My father had been hospitalised, and I was inundated with work and a pressing deadline. The hopelessness of life kept creeping up on me. I wiped my tears in anger and gazed at the bird feeder. Someone cocked his head around the feeder. It was my friend the parrot. Or rather, my husband’s friend.

Well, tough luck, pal, I thought. There’s just me to contend with today. He stared at me. I stared back. I moved closer, but he didn’t budge. He continued eating in little bites from the bird feeder as I inched closer. And just when I could see him up close in his magnificent finery, he looked at me sideways and a little crossly. Keep your distance, he threatened.

For once I listened. I watched the bird eat and fill his tummy. I imagined his pleasure. I shared in his contentment. If he were able to roll onto his back and rub his belly, he would have. It was such a simple joy. Such a simple kindness. I smiled as fresh tears threatened to spill again. That night, I snuggled close to my once-grumpy man and held his hand tight.

feeding birds happiness
Photo by Irina Blok

“Is everything all right?” he asked.

“Yes,” I whispered. “I shared a meal with your friend today.”

These days, my husband smiles more and grumbles less. He now looks at the trees in the neighbourhood and talks about how important they are.

“For the birds, you mean?”

“For us,” he says quietly.

And perhaps that’s it. You reach a stage in life when you yearn to do something new, something good. To give back. To find yourself. To rediscover love. In order to live better.

Some nurture a hobby. Others donate to charity or volunteer to teach. The wealthy may take themselves out for elaborate meals or on a trip to an exotic city, where they can go bungee-jumping or learn to speak Mandarin. My husband did none of those things. 

But he found himself anyway. And in doing so, he found us. All he did was go online and order an ugly bird feeder. And it has made all the difference.