Poetry Sunday: For the Birds by John Shoptaw

I've been spending quite a bit of time observing birds recently. The birds are always there when I am out and about in my yard and it is comforting to watch them going about their normal lives without regard to our human concerns.

Apparently, John Shoptaw has been watching the birds, too, and judging by his poem, I would say he has a considerable understanding and empathy for them. He has empathy for the rare and the common birds, the resident birds and those passing through, including those escaping from wildfires. It pleases him to look after them all.

For the Birds

by John Shoptaw

For the abundant along with the rare birds at my feeder of late
For all kinds of birds I’ve lived with here are turning rarer
For the chestnut-backed chickadee, who carries her sunflower chip to the buckthorn to dine on between her toes
For the chickadees once came to my feeder in bunches
For the big round plain brown pair of California towhees who eat in parallel from the bird-crumb table
For though they crumb it clean without a glance or a cheep, I believe this remote old couple is as entwined as any two polarized photons
For the fearsome indigo Steller’s jays, black hooded and crested, Tapper and Sly, as I call them
For Tapper taps twice on an overhanging plum branch at two clucks from my tongue so I’ll know him
For Sly hangs back and shrieks me over and only shows himself after I place on the table their morning quincunx of unsalted peanuts
For he knows Tapper will quack to announce them and then squawk indignantly when he slyly swoops in
For the vast majority
For the dark-eyed juncos, the wide-eyed titmice, the narrow-eyed red-breasted nuthatches, who feed right-side up as they see it, the other birds upside down
For Audubon’s yellow-rumped, Wilson’s and Townsend’s warblers, nobody’s birds, who feed, drink and breed as they can
For the song sparrow’s song and the sparrow who exults in singing it
For a song—how long will that phrase mean what it means
For them all I refill the feeder, even this morning, when all blown-down things crackle underfoot and the Diablo wind seems to growl diabolically and scrape from all corners at once against a sky the color of flint
For the lesser goldfinches, symbolically fierce, who part their beaks at any other kind who would peck a chip in their presence
For the pine siskins, their symbolic match, who used to expose their underwings back at them with its dreadful yellow stripe
For two years running, no siskins at the feeder
For the brown-crowned, as-yet-unkindled sparrows, wintering from Oregon or the Farallon Islands, I sing my two-note welcome, hel-low, pointless
For they won’t learn it with my face masked against wild smoke migrating from the north
For the species too little or big or otherwise unsuited for the feeder
For Anna’s hummingbirds, who love to suck on our pineapple sage
For the red-tailed hawk perched in the smoke-fogged redwood
For soon it’ll be pestered by a twister of crows cawing hawkawkawkawkaw
For a red-tailed hawk I mistook it—something larger, ruffled molten
For the golden eagle it turned out to be—weird—hunched in the chill
For another flew up out of thick air and followed it south out of eyeshot
For those two—not migrants—evacuees clasping their emotional baggage
For the birds, then, what have I to offer
For what kind of refuge is my catalog
For I can’t reckon how to make good their losses
For I meant not to make a life list I meant
For others to partake in my pleasure
For it pleases me to look after the birds


  1. I am very happy to join him, for it pleases me too to look after the birds, having spent a lifetime doing just that. But in truth they look after me, provide beauty, grace and dignity, unchanging in a world going crazy. They may yet regain their rightful place.

  2. My mother loves to watch the birds and I used to sit with her for hours while she'd talk about the different kinds. It was so relaxing. I miss the country so much. We don't see many birds where I live. Just usually crows and buzzards. A few robins every now and again but nothing like what I used to see. This poem makes me long for home.

    1. Crows, vultures, robins, sparrows, pigeons are all interesting in their own ways if you take the time to watch them carefully. I enjoy watching the crows and vultures from my own backyard. I find watching the vultures as they soar a very Zen activity.

  3. That poem is as much a story as a poem, a meditation as a poem, a lamentation as a poem. I love it.


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