Feeding Birds and Foreign Constructs

Nestled inside a Christmas-themed gift bag was the item I had been waiting for: the shiny red and silver metal poking out of the top was a bird feeder. It glimmered with the reflection of the white, fluorescent lights of our living room and of my hope to attract some of the brightly colored birds native to West Africa to our yard. For many months of the year here in the African Sahel, the landscape consists mainly of dusty shades of brown, tan, red and orange. Against this backdrop, I find it breathtaking when a brilliantly painted Sahelian butterfly or bird crosses my path. I hoped for the simple daily pleasure of seeing a few of these birds outside of my window while enjoying my  morning coffee. By offering them something good to eat, our paths could cross more often as we inhabit the same space.

With anticipation, I planted a nail partway up the Acacia tree outside our window and hung the feeder, filling it with millet from the local market. I waited a few days. The birds hadn’t found it yet. I waited a few more days. Still nothing. Was something wrong? Perhaps the location was not good. Maybe my target audience would never run across the feeder hanging here. I noticed some birds landing on the other side of the yard. Would they find it over there? I moved the feeder to a different place for a couple of weeks. Still no luck.

What about the food? Perhaps a different type would work better. When I googled a question about attracting birds in West Africa, I found dozens of entries advising me on which seed mix to use for various types of North American birds. But for West Africa? Rien. So I put the question out to other expats in my city. They all recommended millet for birdseed, just like I was using. But one person said that they’d had better luck with a simple clay dish, rather than a bird feeder imported from the U.S. Was this manufactured bird feeder a foreign cultural construct, too strange for these African birds to comprehend? Perhaps I needed to better contextualize the gift I was offering. I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever get to observe birds from my window, but I hung the feeder back on the Acacia tree anyway, with a faint hope remaining that it would be discovered and enjoyed. It was good food, after all. Birds need food. And they love millet, right?

Several days later, I glanced out the window and saw four small songbirds lined up along the roof of our carport, just several feet above the feeder. It was almost as if they were talking among themselves, wondering aloud whether that was food in the feeder, asking if it was safe to go land on it, leaning forward and daring one another to try it, then straightening up without having mustered the courage to approach. Then it happened: One yellow-breasted bird with gray wings took flight from the edge of the roof and landed on the edge of the feeder. He pecked away at a few grains of millet. A second red-headed bird (apparently comforted by the fact that the other was safely enjoying a meal) alighted on the feeder, and began contentedly eating away. At last!

These small songbirds (I have yet to identify their species) have become repeat visitors. And, at last, the other day at breakfast, as I took a sip of coffee, I looked out the window and smiled as I watched three little birds peck away at the grains in the feeder. It turns out, the cultural medium was a little different, but not too strange. The target group I had chosen was not the wrong one, it just took them a bit of time to discover the goodness of the gift I was offering. In the end, birds need to eat, and I was offering good grain. It just took a little time and patience.

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