He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so.
Mary Oliver, “Bird,” in Upstream
They are here, everyday–even in Winter, when some wing southward, the steadfast ones remain, shivering the slender branches of the bushes, teasing off the winter red berries, flying off into gray laden skies. A concurrent civilization: the birds are here with us, but not part of us. We are landlocked; they are sky-bound. Our lives intercept, but they are not parallel.
The parking lot is full, after lunch (just imagine–some student up and took ‘my’ convenient space on this cool, gray, rainy day!), so I park in the back lot and tug my bags out of the back seat. I trudge across the rain-slicked lot thinking desultory thoughts,…thinking, “Gotta email John, and set a time for the extra workshop. Where’s my Third Thursday schedule?” when a flicker snares my attention.
I look up to see that there are plump, rosy-breasted bluebirds perched in each of the saplings in the grassy yard behind my building. They flutter into flight as I walk by, as I stop to fumble, too late, for my cell phone and its camera.
Bluebirds! I marvel. A flock of bluebirds!
I lived in New York State, where the bluebird was the official state bird, for the majority of my life. I had never seen a live, free bluebird until we moved to Ohio. And never before today had I seen an entire flock of them.
The little birds are so bright and boisterous I can see why they’re associated with happiness. Feeling somehow lightened, I march back to my office to tackle my trudgy to-do’s.
I leave work at 5:30 that afternoon, when nature is beginning to hunker down for the night, drawing close its gray wool covering. And the crows are on the move, en masse, cawing harshly, leaving whatever places they inhabit during the day, gathering in pulsing, heaving, social masses.
They blacken the trees perched on the edge of the slope behind the Helen Purcell Home, the steep drop-off that rolls down to the river plain; they overlook, as the sky darkens, the winking lights of our little city spread out below. The crows gather and they open their beaks and chorus raucously as they sing their late ones home.
Sleek and black and noisy–the crows don’t give me that flicker of hope the bluebirds imparted. Instead, safely inside my car, I duck my head defensively, and feel a cold finger trace chill lines on my back and upper arms. Foreboding: that’s the emotion the crows bring with them. I am glad to park my car in the carport and bolt into the house.
Today is one of those days that I remember to realize that birds live all around me.
I know people who pretty much pay attention to birds all the time.
There is Al, who teaches in the Wildlife program. He leads a troupe of students who build wooden box dwellings for barn owls. They put these up in the deep, unsettled areas of this rural county; they don’t share the locations because barn owls, endangered and necessary, are shy creatures who don’t cotton to the company of human gawkers.
Al is someone people call when they find an injured bird. He came to an all-employee meeting once with a majestic red-tailed hawk perched on his shoulder; she’d been hurt and was mid-recovery. Her eyes rolled at all the people. Al put her on a tarp and let people sidle carefully closer to observe this emissary from a different civilization. She paced, nervous and wary. When she spread her long, strong wings to try to flap her way outside, away from people, to a free, safe place, I felt the heady rush of wind she created twenty feet away.
Al has other birds, too–hawks and falcons, fallen ones that he nurses back to health and launches back into their wild homes. Sometimes, though, they won’t leave, and Al has a continuing companion, one who, I imagine, keeps his barn free of rodent pests and keeps him, too, carefully within the long, wide shot of their piercing, protective eyes.
There is Eryk, one of Al’s students, whose passion for wild birds leads him to his choice of profession: park ranger. Eryk, in a writing class, taught me about wild ducks and geese. He talked about bald eagles, too, raptors which have returned to this corner of Ohio. When I told him I’d never seen one, he laughed.
“You HAVE!” he said. “The immature birds have dark heads. You’ve probably seen them clustered in fields, and thought you were seeing vultures.”
There are wonderful bird-bloggers, like Kathy Doremus at Backyard Bird Nerd (https://backyardbirdnerd.com/2017/02/20/a-popular-place-to-perch/ ), whose wild bird photography fascinates me.
There are people who have their life lists, who travel to sight the birds they’ve never yet had the chance to see in nature. We know a very special woman who flew overseas to catch an important migration not so very long ago. She was in her 80’s, with a serious illness, and that illness brought her home early, but, darn it, she took the chance and saw the birds she needed to see.
Some people, I think, share a little of the migratory wanderlust with the birds that fascinate them.
Mary Oliver writes about rescuing an injured bird, of creating a place for it, giving it a good life in its last broken days. My brothers sometimes brought home broken fledglings when we were children. We would nest them in cardboard boxes from the supermarket; we would try to feed them with an eyedropper. Mashed worms. Warm milk. We would coo them welcome.
They never made it. Often, they would disappear from the box while we slept, our parents not wanting us to wake up to that stiff little feather bundle. There were baby bird graves in our back yard.
My mother fed the birds in that yard. She kept a container where we threw stale ends of bread, crusts and heels, and she would crumble those up and broadcast them in the hard-packed areas of the yard that we’d worn grassless playing wiffleball and kickball. The birds would swarm–mostly robins and starlings and sparrows. She would stand, smoking, in the kitchen window and watch them, marveling at the way they integrated and shared and communicated.
Feeding the birds is not a habit I’ve perpetuated. Seeding the lawn with edibles would invite a whole additional set of visitors beyond just birds. I don’t want to encourage raccoons and squirrels and field mice who might just turn a speculative eye toward the house from which such bounty emanates.
And my appreciation of Mom’s bright-eyed perky sparrows has been jaded, too, since talking with our nature-loving friend Grace. Grace is zen-centered, non-aggressive, and willing to live in peace with most of God’s creatures, but Grace despises the English sparrow. They’re not supposed to even BE here, she says; they stowed away, most likely, on rickety wooden ships making the sea voyage to the New World, debarked, checked it out, and decided to stay.
Sparrows, Grace says darkly, are the Cosa Nostra of the local bird kingdom; they will wait until a bluebird has settled in a box, and a lovely warm home has been created. Then they will viciously attack, killing the grownup birds, destroying eggs and tender babies, and smugly taking the comfy site over for their own. They will nest, says Grace, right on top of the carcasses of the birds they’ve killed.
Now when I see the sparrows hopping and pecking, they look sinister, not perky. What are they plotting? I wonder. Or–what have they already done?
For there is, certainly, a cold and bloody side to our beautiful bird friends. We have seen, walking with our animal-loving granddaughter, laughing crows sweep in and steal a baby wren from its nest, dangling the sad little thing, staying a few feet ahead of its frantic parents, cawing and taunting as they take turns flying in to peck at their little captive.
“Put it DOWN!” our granddaughter wailed, running after the carnage-crows, but they laughed and taunted her, too.
And one day, Mark stood on our sunporch, talking on the phone to his brother in California. He was watching a couple of chipmunks cavorting in the rain across the street, when a hawk swooped in, grabbed a chipmunk without breaking flight, and pumped away, lunch in its talons.
“Whoa!” Mark yelled. “What did–? I can’t believe that just happened!”
The other chipmunk skittered away, and the sky, Mark said, was vastly empty.
I have read that birds are closer to dinosaurs than any other creatures living, and I imagine those prehistoric creatures cocking their heads, rolling their eyes, hopping delicately from treat to treat like the funny little birds on my lawn. I picture T-Rex with a coating of bright feathers. I wonder if its tiny arms weren’t vestigial, if the T-Rex sported wings whose flesh and cartilage, in time’s furnace after death, wasted away, leaving tiny arm bones for scientists to find and speculate upon.
Maybe birds once ruled the world.
Maybe, in their perception, despite our houses and cats and environmentally unfriendly habits, they think they still do.
But how would I know what birds think? I barely register sharing space with them most days. Unless it is spring and they are boisterously calling; Mark swears we have a dysfunctional bird couple that returns to roost in our trees each year.
“Judy Judy Judy,” he calls, pleading. But, “Cheater Cheater Cheater!” she shrills back at him.
You’d think, Mark says, he’d learn–or she would.
We used to have hummingbirds that visited; then I hung a hummingbird feeder. I haven’t seen one since.
I am not, naturally, a nature girl; a too-close high school encounter with a nasty bird who targeted my shining red hair leaves me permanently bird-wary–and left me, too, with the nickname “Condor” for quite a number of years. So I do not know how to lure and keep feathered friends returning to my yard; they make me a little nervous, in themselves, and I worry about the habits of the friendly prowling cats of this pet-loving neighborhood. But I feel the prickle of awe when I see a calm, majestic hawk perched on top of a power pole. I marvel at the gawky, prehistoric flight of one of the herons I see on summer evenings, lazily winging away from the river.
We are earth-rooted; birds are, as Mary Oliver writes, sky-citizens, ambassadors from a wholly different culture, testifying quietly in our midst. I am glad for the glimpses I get into their world, for the visit of a bluebird bunch, for the awkward heron flapping. I treasure the photos and the facts more knowledgeable people share. They remind me, birds do,–when I am awake and aware–that MY world is also THEIR world; that we live side by side with all kinds of wonders, with beauty and with treachery.
And we do not know everything. And we are not alone.