What We Talk About When We Talk About Birds

(Cardinal photo courtesy of Amy Lynch)

Our days begin with birds. We drink hot tea at the kitchen table as the sun rises and the birds  gather at the feeder in the holly trees. These trees are twenty feet tall and grown together in a dense clump. One day they will block our view, but for now, they provide a prickly refuge for our birds.

What do we talk about when we talk about birds?

How to tell the difference between a hairy woodpecker and a downy woodpecker, with its tiny bill and barred white outer tail feathers. That sparrows nonetheless are indistinguishable to us, tumbling over the ground like a whirlwind of fallen leaves. When the rose-breasted grosbeaks are likely to return, and why we find the males startling but the females, with their infinite shades of brown, beautiful. Where the robins should be living this time of the year (south), even though one just floundered into the orchard, likely to wait for rain and worms. Who first saw the wily chickadee dive into a crack in the seed tube once the feeder was three-quarters empty and he could no longer reach the black oil sunflower seeds from the perch.

On cold, gloomy days like this one, we talk about how we finally trained the crazy male cardinal not to crash into the kitchen window. We stood tall vases of flowers in the windowsills. We taped bright blue X’s on the panes. But for three years, nothing stopped the silly bird from bashing his head into the window and leaving muddy bird feather prints all over the glass. Late this summer, I bought a little stuffed bird, hand sewn from mismatched antique fabrics, and hung it in the window. And just like that, the bashing stopped. However, as Keith reminds me, three years is a long time for a bird to live in the wild. Perhaps our cardinal is no longer with us at all, and we will never again be wakened at dawn by our little birdbrain basher.

At the Perry Farm, we can turn in any direction and tell a story about a bird we saw there. North, the red-headed woodpeckers who nested in the dead wild cherry tree with their brown-headed fledglings, or the great blue heron we watched one misty morning, gulping up the bullfrogs as she circled the pond (and making our summer evenings so much quieter, thank you very much). East, the great horned owl nestlings who croaked all evening long, disrupting our summer toasts to the setting sun, or their father, who  leaves us little gifts near his stolen nest, possum tails and spinal cords with the brains sucked clean. South, the pheasants and bobwhites that hunker down at the farm when the combines and hunters come, or the goldfinches we thought were dandelions until they lifted off the ground and flew away. West, the mockingbird that always sat on the power line and sang two dozen other birds’ songs while Keith’s mother worked in the garden, even up to her ninetieth year when she had to sit on the ground to reach the bindweed and crabgrass.

These birds are our fair and foul weathered friends, the colors and calls of the landscape we love, the touchstones to our memories of the Perry Farm.

That’s what we talk about when we talk about birds.

Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love



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