My next thought was, "I hope he doesn't catch a bird." It was all I had time to say before the snake unfurled himself to show me I was too late. He swung upside down, the head of a house finch snug in his throat. He had been squeezing the bird's life away when I came on the scene.
The bird feeder, a gift from a friend, hangs from a tree outside our kitchen window. For the past year and a half John and I have stocked it with sunflower seeds, more or less faithfully, and have had the joy of getting to know our neighborhood birds: the flashy cardinals, bossy English sparrows, and chattering finches, as well as the playful nuthatches that amuse us by feeding upside down. Occasionally a blue jay drops in, and we marvel at his size and beauty. We might also see a chickadee or two and, if we are lucky, a bright, busy goldfinch.
Watching and listening, we have learned to be better observers, to notice changes in our little flock that we once might have missed. What a thrill it was when the cardinals first brought their chicks to feed! The baby birds were as large as their parents but gray, having yet to acquire the distinctive red or orange feathers of adulthood. They perched on a swinging bough and emitted a whistle--too high-pitched for John to hear--that I quickly learned meant, "Feed us!" Their dutiful parents shelled seed after seed, which they deposited in the youngsters' eager mouths.
We have laughed at the antics of squirrels trying with all their cleverness and might to get their tiny paws on the birds' stash of seed. It's a frustrating pursuit, because the feeder is designed so that the weight of a squirrel's body pulls down a metal screen that puts the seed out reach. Never fear for the squirrels, though. Living where they do, surrounded by tall oaks, they have plenty of acorns to eat. Even so, more than once John and I have discovered the feeder on the ground, empty and pulled apart and left that way by a rampaging squirrel.
But these were victimless crimes, easily made right, whereas there is no bringing back a murdered bird. I felt the loss of the innocent finch, which had no inkling what lay in store when it came with its brothers and sisters to feed. I remembered Sara Henderson Hay's brief poem "For a Dead Kitten":
How could this small body hold
So immense a thing as death?
Ultimately, though, as nature watchers know, the snake was as innocent as the finch. The creatures that slither have the same right to eat as those that fly. And I can honestly say that our snake was magnificent to watch. He was a black rat snake, a species common to our region that will grow to six feet in length, but ours was just a youth, two feet long at most. John and I wondered if he would manage to swallow his prey, whose body was several times wider than his own. It took time, but he unhinged his jaw and did it, all the while balancing in the tree. I stepped away and returned to see only the tip of a tail feather still outside his mouth.
The bulging snake rested on a branch. He was gone when I next checked, and I haven't seen him since. Life returned to the bird feeder, but because it is life, I know that death will be back one day, too.