Saturday, April 10, 2010
Does Familiarity Breed Contempt?
Does familiarity breed contempt? I hope not.
I spend quite a bit of time watching birds at bird feeders. I watch the feeders in the morning when I have a cup of coffee. I watch them during lunch while also reading the day’s mail. I watch them through the kitchen window when I am preparing a meal, or just passing by. On a sultry summer morning or afternoon, I sit on the porch and watch the birds come to and fro at the feeders.
Occasionally an unusual bird pauses on the feeders, but most of the birds are familiar. Some are around all year. Some pass through during spring and fall migration. Some visit during the summer when raising their families. Some of the individual resident birds have been around for several years - or at least, I think so. I would love to be able to band or tag them so I could identify the individuals. They know my schedule, such as when I put out the seed in the morning. They know the suet feeder will only be absent for a few minutes when I take it inside to refill. They know to wait, though not always patiently, when I have yard work to do.
Watching the birds at bird feeders is relaxing, peaceful, entertaining, and sometimes even exciting. They are familiar, but does familiarity breed contempt? Or perhaps more accurately, does familiarity breed a taking them for granted attitude? Oh yes, there is so and so again.
I started asking myself the question after I spent a week at Asa Wright Nature Centre on Trinidad. A lot of that time was spent watching the Centre’s bird feeders from the veranda. The birds were all new to me. Many of those birds were unrelated to any of the birds I might see in New England, much less around my feeders. And many were just drop-dead gorgeous! After a week, I was still saying, “Wow!” even to some common, ever-present birds.
The Purple Honeycreeper was a common visitor to the hummingbird feeders and the flowers around the veranda. The male has a deep blue body - a deeper blue than our Indigo Bunting and a richer blue that our Black-throated Blue Warbler. (In spite of its name, I could not really see the Purple Honeycreeper’s color as purple.) Black wings contrast with the deep blue body. It has a bright red eye, and a long decurved bill. The male’s companion is green, with a white breast streaked with green & blue; she has a rusty orange chin, and a thin purple malar (a line running from the base of the beak down what we would call the jaw and neck). She is a contrast to him, but to my aesthetic, every bit as gorgeous.
One of my first mornings back home, I saw a chunky, foxy-red sparrow hop out from the brush and scratch at the ground. Excitedly I called my favorite companion to see our first Fox Sparrow of the year.
I am fortunate to have the Rose-breasted Grosbeak as a summer visitor and neighborhood nester ... and Baltimore Orioles singing in the trees and coming around for a fruit or suet snack ... and passing Indigo Buntings ... and wine red Purple Finches ... and a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird who will patrol the grounds with proprietary fervor.
But these are all summer season birds, and I must not overlook the familiar birds that are so often take for granted. A number of years ago I had visitors from California, and other visitors from Britain. Their jaws dropped in awe when they saw one of my regulars for the first time. From the other side of the continent and the other side of the ocean, these visitors mumbled something like, “That is so beautiful ... you are so lucky!”
In a moment of restraint, I did not say, “Oh, that’s just a Blue Jay.” Oh yes, the Blue Jay is brash and flashy, but he is also drop-dead gorgeous ... unless our familiarity with this bundled energy has made us take him for granted ... or worse, has bred contempt.
For me, Spring, with its rushing impulse for life, banishes the taken-for-grantedness that comes with familiarity. Excitement and vibrance are in the air. Enjoy it!