When I was 7, we lived in Kalamazoo in a house next to a gravel parking lot. This was only memorable in that I learned to ride a bike in that lot, and I’ve often wondered if my parents were intentionally trying to injure me by setting me loose on a two-wheeler for the first time in gravel. At least a dozen times, the bike came to a complete standstill as the rear tire wedged into the stones. There would be the brief motionless moment of panic, and then I would slowly keel over sideways, my feet still on the pedals. Good times.
More remarkable than the gravel lot, however, was the wide grassy field next to the lot. It extended for several acres and was surrounded by huge walnut trees and a lot of low berry bushes. Thistle, wild wheat, weird seedy plants, and any number of wildflowers grew in that field; in other words, it was a gigantic buffet for birds. From May until late October, the field was raucous with bird calls and chatter, and the sound of bird voices through my open window as I fell asleep and woke up was as natural and expected as the wind or the sunrise.
Because the world of birds was so everyday to me, I didn’t really notice birds or worry about them any more than I might worry about a blade of grass. Then, when I was in 2nd grade, my mom put out a bunch of feeders during a particularly brutal Michigan winter. I sat by the kitchen window mornings before school and anxiously watched all these tiny chickadees and finches peck at seeds in the middle of a snowstorm.
“They look cold,” I announced. “Somebody should do something.”
“Don’t panic,” my mom advised. “They’re covered in feathers. Layers and layers of feathers. If anyone knows how to stay warm, it’s a bird.”
This seemed reasonable until I noticed their legs and feet. Totally featherless! Even worse, bird legs looked frail, dry, and exceedingly chilly.
“Their legs are naked,” I said with some alarm. This was met with silence. My brother may have snickered.
“I mean, they’re like frozen sticks,” I continued. No one cared.
“Those birds must be freezing.”
” I said FREEZING!”
Finally my dad cleared his throat from behind his newspaper.
“Why don’t you crochet some leggings for them and display them near the feeders,” he said blandly without lowering the newspaper even an inch.
I was not yet skilled at recognizing sarcasm, and the thought of songbirds in warm handmade tights occupied my imagination for much of that winter. When spring finally arrived and the hummingbirds darted around the flower boxes, I really noticed them for the first time. I sat watching them, mesmerized by their ability to fly backwards and hover in mid-air. Had they really been here every summer for my entire life?
“Here’s the thing about hummingbirds,” my older brother said authoritatively one afternoon. “They don’t have any legs. The winter freezes them right off.”
I ignored him.
“I’ll pay you five thousand dollars if you can ever point out a hummingbird walking. They can’t. No legs.”
I spent much of that summer worrying about hummingbirds, even secretly tearing up now and then at their poor little legless feet perched on the edge of the cranesbill geraniums. If only they had had tights.
What followed were years of pet canaries, finches, parakeets, and, once, an abandoned robin. Many of these pet birds blend together in an orinthological blur, but my first canary, Pee Wee, stands out. He was a fierce little yellow beast with an ear-splitting song that he repeated note for note all day long if the sun was shining. I taught him to sit on my finger and then on my shoulder. He would grasp the collar of my shirt as I wandered casually about the house, and keep up a steady pecking at my ear to remind me that he was in charge regardless of how it might appear.
Pee Wee went with me everywhere. Once, on a family trip to Washington D.C. by car, Pee Wee sat glumly in his cage near the back of the station wagon. It had been a gloomy, rainy day, and he was clearly bored. Then, just as we hit the horror of the Beltway at rush hour, the sun came out and Pee Wee burst forth in song.
“Tell that damned bird to can it!” my father shouted tensely from behind the wheel.
I leaned back and waved at Pee Wee, making a shushing hand motion. When that didn’t work, I tried a different tactic.
“Shut up, you little son of a bitch,” I said breezily, trying out a phrase I had heard some older kids use at the public pool that summer.
My brother snapped his face toward me with the kind of horrified smirk you might give your best friend if he pooped his pants. Uh oh. It was like the split second moment of being stuck in the gravel.
“WHAT DID YOU SAY?!” came my mom’s bellow.
A twenty-minute lecture followed, complete with stop-and-go traffic, horn blasting, my father swearing, and toll booths. But Pee Wee sang to beat the band, ear-shatteringly, repetitively, and ecstatically through it all. Forty-two years later, I can still recall that bird’s exact song and, in fact, my brother and I can hum it perfectly in unison. Incessantly. In public. Much to the dismay of his teenage daughters.
Birds have always remained comforting, amusing, and inspiring to me in their own little wacky birdbrained way. They weave like chatty multi-colored threads through my days, as natural and expected as the wind and the sunrise. In the nearby 2684-acre park where I often run, it is bird incidents I mostly remember: the giant pileated woodpecker pair swooping overhead, hawks splashing in a mudpuddle, crows catching currents and cracking up, brilliant goldfinches swaying on thistle, and, once, a a really pissed buzzard hissing at me when I got too close to the dead deer he was eating. And then there are the flying monkeys that are really owls (that’s right!), but that’s another blog.
For all the grandeur and magnificence of some of the places I’ve visited, the longest-lasting and distilled memories often have something to do with birds. Three months in Alaska became a flock (an entire flock!) of eagles flying just above our heads with their 6-foot wingspans as they circled down to the Copper River in Chitina looking for salmon. A week camping in Idaho became rows of magpies arguing with one another on farm fences. Antarctica is a stinky mountainside of penguins, the Serengeti an ostrich in heat, Kyoto a blue and white flycatcher in the bamboo.
In 1998, I was living in an apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. I had religiously placed bowls of safflower seed out on the window ledge, hoping to attract bluebirds, but all I got were big old fat dirty mourning doves. They wallowed on the ledge, scooping mountains of seeds into their beaks without even bothering to crack the shells. They were so unbearably lazy and gluttonous that I often found them sound asleep right in the middle of the seed bowl. Mourning, my ass, I thought.
Four days after returning from my father’s funeral, I was sitting near the window with the safflower seeds when a small bird with rust wings that hid a brilliant blue landed on the sill. A Kentucky bluebird. He didn’t eat or fidget around. Mostly, he just cocked his head and looked at me. I looked at him. We stayed that way for a while and then he flew away. Many years later, I am no less certain that that was some kind of gift, spirit, memory, farewell.
Yesterday, I took an 8-mile run in the park, and the birds were particularly boistrous. It’s been a serious pain-in-the-ass winter so far, and it snowed for the fourth time last night, so I’m sure the birds were in a frozen-legged panic to get to the grocery and stock up on perishables or something. On my way home, I naturally stopped at Kroger. I didn’t really need anything, but it was going to snow an inch and a half, so I had to buy something.
As I cruised the aisles, I noticed more than a few people smiling moderately foolishly at me. I couldn’t blame them. I felt as though I looked pretty snappy in my new running hat, a white cap sort of thing with a built-in hole for my ponytail that makes me look somewhat like Suzy Chapstick with just a hint of a walking Q-Tip. Clearly, everyone was pleased with my attire.
When I got home, I glanced in the mirror and noticed a gigantic streak of brownish bird turd on my hat, courtesy of one of my beloved park birds.
“That little son of a bitch,” I muttered as I dragged the only thing I had bought at Kroger up the stairs: a 20-pound bag of sunflower seeds.