In Birdland

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

And propagated.

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Murmur of Chaos, A Murder of Crows

murderofcrows

[Image from The Farmers’ Almanac, http://www.almanac.com]

The crows, on winter nights just before dusk, fly in to roost in the trees by the old folks’ home.

The home sits on the edge of the city’s highest hill, two houses down from me and across the street. We walk the paths that wind behind it, that skirt the hill’s ledge. Standing there, when weather has bared the trees, the little dog Greta and I can look to the east and watch the un-iced portion of river ripple. To the south, as darkness falls, city lights flicker on, then glow bold against the winter night.

But on these late January days the crows fly in by the hundreds, by the thousands.  They are random and disorganized and relentless. The trees, all of them, are weighted black and heavy, and still the crows come, wheeling in from all directions. They are raucous, and they feel threatening.

I get home from work just as the light is changing; the little dog waits for her pre-supper walk.  When I leash her up and we step into the front yard, she freezes, her ruff rising ragged.

They spook her, those crows, with their swooping, rough-edged cries.  They converge and there are awful moments when their individual caws merge into one swelling unpleasant pulse. Their harshness sands off the ‘kuh.’  Aw-aw-aw, they chorus, full-throated, beaks wide-open. Delighted, magnified, they get louder, bolder: AWawAWawAWawAW!

It is the shrill sound of chaos, the melody of madness.  It lands in the pit and squirms.

Some nights the dog resolutely plunges forward into her regular walking route, wary but determined, heading toward the home, toward the roosting crows.  Then, my neck prickles.  My shoulders grow cold beneath the collar of my plaid-lined cloth coat. I  pull up my hood and I follow her, but cautiously.  We do not dilly dally.

Other nights Greta turns quickly away, her back to the screaming, shiny birds, and  she heads down the hill to the quieter end of the street.

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Crows, I have read, are for the most part solitary, preferring their individual lives in warmer months or climes.   It’s in the cold and chill of winter that they cluster, in murders, for night-time survival.

And animals, I think I know, are not inherently evil–nor good, for that matter; they just survive with the tools they’ve been given.

But I have seen, on a summer’s walk with my tender granddaughter, a pair of crows pluck a baby from a smaller bird’s nest and fly off jeering.  The baby’s frantic parents raced after them; the crows soared nonchalantly on ahead, one dangling the feebly fluttering fledgling from its beak.  The other crow swooped in to peck and torment; both turned their heads toward the parents, black eyes alight, and then flew on. My granddaughter, animal lover and nurturer, one born to help and heal, begged them, running after, please, to stop.

They seemed to us gleeful.

They seemed to us psychopathic.

I have seen crows strutting in the middle of a busy road, pecking around a carcass, unwilling to move before my speeding car.  They shuffle into flight at the last minute; I can almost smell the rotten stench beneath their wings, feel that warm decay pass me by too closely. Their leisure feels a lot like arrogance.

My head knows it’s silly to dislike a bird, but still. I don’t like crows.

And I especially don’t like the pulsing mayhem on these winter nights, their triumphant cawing infestation.  I am glad to turn the little dog back toward the bright windows of home.

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Inside the house disorder rankles.  With an energy stoked by some sort of anger, I pull bags and packages from the pantry and stack them on the counter.  I climb on a chair and denude the highest shelf, discovering things plunked there and untouched since we moved in.

I sort–some to donate, some to discard, some to store and use.

I fill the sink with hot soapy water, plunge a soft cloth into the suds. I scrub each shelf mightily, and then rub each shelf, hard, with a towel.  I reorder and replace the saved items on shelves, neatly, pleasingly.  Balsamic and apple vinegars, western New York barbecue marinade, soy sauce and hot sauce, perch on the very top, a bottle-wall in front of cookie cutters and cake decorating things used only occasionally.  I put basmati rice and fettuccine noodles more easily to hand.  Crackers share space with cans of tomatoes, and prettily-bottled olive oil with its clunky, contained-in-plastic, canola oil kin.

I box things to go in the trash, to take to the food kitchen downtown.  I load boxes in my car.  I sweep and wash the kitchen floor, and I stand, in my sock-feet on the still damp tiles, in front of the open pantry door. I breathe in the new-made order.

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The crows are gone, the trees empty, just after dawn when I take the dog out for her morning rites.  But the wind has picked up; it skirls dead leaves into the ivy that hugs the ground in front of the house.  Across the street, a long, thick, electrical extension cord snakes from New Neighbors’ house to the place they park their truck; on the end, some sort of element glows red and wobbles gently. The truck is long gone. The element seems like a story left dangerously without an ending.

A coil of blue packing twine skitters in the street, and still, these many weeks later, a shard of Christmas wrapping flips up into the leaves huddling by the retaining wall.

The sky is a lowering gray, full and ominous.  It will snow today, although the experts told us it would not.  The snow will be thin, light, whipping stuff that only sticks in hidden crevices and corners; it will taunt ankles and sting cheeks and have none of the beauty of a Christmas card. This wind will blow it anywhere it likes.

I am reading a book set in Provence, in the time of the mistral. The author talks about the wind-induced madness, a kind of craziness that lifts and tears and finally, cleanses.  This weather–and last night’s crows–make me think of that powerful, externally-imposed chaos. I hurry the dog along; we shiver our way back inside.

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This day, the dog suddenly hurls herself at the door, snarling, when a frail old man shuffles past the house. Cars careen out in front of traffic, stealing right-of-way for themselves. At work, people plod grimly and bad news is completely expected and checks have come unloosened on ordinarily civil tongues.  I am glad when it is time to go home, to rub the dog’s silky head, to talk with Jim, warm and settled with his writing.

The fine and taunting snow swirls outside; I put potatoes on to boil.  I roll a pork roast in a skim of oil.  I pat it with a crust of herbs, and I put it in the warming oven.  It will perfume the house. I will shake the boiled potatoes with their own light film of oil and herbs, and put them, too, in to roast. Mark will arrive, shedding his long coat, rubbing his cold hands, ready to eat. I will dress a spinach salad and we will light a candle tonight as we dine, a shot at warmth and comfort.

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After dinner I clear the desk, carrying a basket of unsorted papers to the dining room table.  I sift them; some I can act on right away, filling out the form, writing the check, sealing the message into its envelope.  Others must be filed, labelled and alphabetized and easy to find; many can go into the recycling basket.  Some few head to the shredder.  I work diligently, surprised when my knees begin to jelly on me. I look at my phone and realize I have been standing in this one spot for two uninterrupted hours.  I clear off the table, move everything to its appointed place, and celebrate finding the missing paper that had been eluding me.

Another surface cleared; a little more order imposed. I will sleep well tonight.

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So we plunge into the infant year, with its unformed, uncommitted potential.  We try to steer it  away from the random, toward the light, out of discordance, into order—into warmth and meaning. The raucous noise, the threatening wind, the mindless creatures flapping: we’ll tame them with our light and with our bravery. We will hold them at bay, we promise ourselves, with the strength and ferocity of our belief.