Heaven forbid I come across as the Earnest Craft Lady. Is that what’s happening? I fear so, especially when the best bits of my articles are removed in the editorial process. By best bits I mean midrashim, ecological interplay, words like insectivorous and other goodies. Alas, what remains are earnest how-tos peppered with exclamation marks. I am grateful any of my work is accepted for publication anywhere, truly, but it is a relief to know I have an outlet here. The beauty (and the horror) of a blog is that the blogger is editor. And here, forthwith, is the uncut version of the Tu B’Shevat Pine-Cone Bird-feeder, best bits and all.
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Tu Bishvat: For the Birds
(Or: Why We Give Gifts to Birds on the Trees’ Birthday)
A pinecone with a nut-butter shmear and a coating of birdseed: for any kid, it’s a perfect nature craft year-round. For Jewish kids, the shmearing is sometimes programmed to coincide with Tu Bishvat, the Birthday / New Year of Trees. It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s cheap, and it gives kids instant gratification. They make a birdfeeder, hang it in a tree, and birds usually find it pretty quickly. Everybody wins.
But why on the Birthday of the Trees do we make a present for the birds?
Shouldn’t we be making something for the birthday tree? Well, turns out, we do. What’s good for the bird is good for the tree.
Birds need trees for food and shelter, but trees actually need birds, too. Studies show that insectivorous birds keep insect populations in check: insects that chew, suck and bore into plant tissue and foliage. Trees caged to exclude birds can show marked reduction in trunk growth and leaf health. The fancy term is terrestrial, top-down trophic cascade, a phrase that makes me feel smarter just having typed it. Biological sciences have proven what my gut tells me: when my kid hangs a pinecone feeder in the Sugar Maple, the Sugar Maple likes it.
If a seed-laden soy-butter pinecone attracts more birds to a tree, chances are good some of those birds will hang around and chow down on bugs. We can keep the birds around with regularly maintained feeding stations that make our yards attractive to nest-building newlyweds in the spring, again augmenting the presence of birds, decimating the bugs, and thus benefiting our favorite trees.
But there are other reasons we feed the birds at Tu Bishvat—super Jewy, traditional reasons. The Shabbat right before Tu Bishvat is Shabbat Shira, or Shabbat of the Song. A minhag (custom) for Shabbat Shira is to feed the birds.
1. Birds sing. Shabbat Shira is named for the part of the week’s Torah portion (B’shallach) when the Israelites escape Egypt and cross the Sea of Reeds. They sing Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, which begins: “I will sing to the Lord.” The Israelites sang, just like birds: for sheer joy.
2. A midrash (a Rabbinic story based on Biblical text) credits birds with foiling a plot to dishonor Moses. While wandering in the desert, troublemakers tried to make Moses look like a liar when he said no manna would fall on Shabbat. God had told Moses that a double portion would fall on Friday, thus ensuring that the Israelites would not need to “work” on Shabbat to gather food. The troublemakers scattered manna Friday night to make it look like it fell from heaven on Shabbat morning. But, during the night, birds ate all the extra manna, so none was on the ground when everyone awoke. Moses retained the people’s trust. To repay this debt of gratitude, we feed the birds on Shabbat Shira.
So there you have it. Symbiology and Jewish Studies both give us reasons to make pine-cone bird feeders for Tu Bishvat. Plus, making them anytime of the year bags the kid-friendly mitzvah of Tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the commandment to take care of living creatures.
Really, we’re re-gifting. The tree already gave us the pinecone. We take that gift from the tree, add to it a creamy spread made from tree fruit (almond butter, cashew butter, hazelnut butter), roll it in birdseed (likewise gleaned from the bounty of nature), and voila: a creatively repurposed gift aimed right back at the giver.
We have so much more to be grateful for to trees than just cones and fruit, of course. They also give us medicine, shade, wood, wildlife habitat, food, beauty, oxygen, carbon sequestration, rainfall interception, and a bazillion products we use every day.
If you are new to the classic pinecone feeder, here’s a quick How-To:
§ Nut butter (peanut, soy, almond, etc.)
§ Blunt knife for kid to spread with
§ Shallow bowl or plate
§ Biodegradable yarn to tie to tree limb
Let child smear pine-cone with nut butter and then roll the pine-cone in a plate of birdseed. Help her tie yarn to one end of pine-cone. Hang from a tree limb that can be seen from the inside of the house, so kids can see birds enjoying the gift.
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A version of this article originally appeared at Kveller.com: a Jewish Twist on Parenting.