THE EXUBERANCE OF BIRDS
by Jerry Murley
One damp, cold, cloudy Sunday afternoon in March, my wife and I drove across the road to the farm house. Earlier in the day we had seen two rare Pileated Woodpeckers. Rather than keep their usual distance, out of sight of humans, the pair had been attracted to the farm yard after the first lawn cutting of the season; the walnuts still on the ground around the giant walnut tree had been cracked and cast around the yard. One of the birds, probably a male, was flitting anxiously around the driver's side window of a disabled car parked under the pole-and-tin carport. On our afternoon arrival, I saw the same large bird close by the other car under the carport. After the bird flew off, I walked to the place where he had been, curious as to the fevered activity that induced him to linger so long in agitation. When I got to the driver's side of the car, I could see that half the side mirror remained intact. On close inspection, I could see pieces of mirrored glass on the ground, some several feet away, beneath the side mirror. Apparently, the male bird had been aggravated by the prospect of another male invading his territory. He had encountered a fearless opponent indeed; his chief foe was his own hard head, handsome as it undoubtedly was.
For years we, too, have been burdened by messy uninvited visits from disturbed birds with a similar, destructive obsession with themselves. In one case, the invader was a handsome cardinal transfixed by his image in a car mirror, spooked by his own defiant posturings.
Like many suburban boys in the 1950s and 1960s, I had little connection with birds. This remained the case up to my early twenties. Periodically, I was aware of a cardinal, a robin, a jay, a mockingbird, or the occasional vulture, but not much more than passing notice was given them. My appreciation was brief and sparsely distributed over a twenty-year period. During a few years in my early teens, when I acquired a BB gun, I, like every stupid boy of my ilk, tried to shoot a bird when utterly bored. It is my good fortune that birds were much brighter and faster than I: I do not have the blood of a bird on my hands.
It was not until I came to know my future wife that my eyes were opened to another view of birds. She was taking an ornithology class at college and owned a field guide to bird identification. That was the first time that I had encountered someone even remotely interested in birds. Later I discovered the enthusiasm her father had for birds. Eventually, the two of us, my wife and I, grew to the ways of modest bird watchers.
My father-in-law fed the birds dutifully and liberally in winter. He built bluebird boxes and mounted them on wooden posts that were spaced strategically in the farm fields surrounding his house. He lectured us about cleaning the boxes of old nesting in early spring to prevent the spread of disease. He inspected the boxes for eggs and routinely checked on the development of the hatchlings. He kept a log of when the hummingbirds came each spring and when they left in October.
It wasn't until about thirty-one years ago that my wife and I started putting up bluebird boxes. We started feeding the birds black oil sunflower seeds throughout the winter and nailed suet on a tall wooden post outside our kitchen window for the woodpeckers. In times of ice, we scattered cornbread crumbs on rustic limestone benches that stand slightly above snow-covered ground. We can see the hummingbird feeder, the bird feeders, the suet holders, and the birdbath from our kitchen window above the sink. Watching birds is a primary occupation when washing dishes. It draws us from the inside out on cold, winter days. Often birds present the only lively activity observable in the 200 acres comprising our field of view in the 360 degrees surrounding our house.
The birds know when to come feed each year. Their early presence reminds us that it is time to start the seasonal feeding. Nowadays, if we don't put suet out fast enough, the woodpeckers start knocking on the wood trim near the roof of our house. In the spring, the birds echo in the woods on the hill behind our house and in the trees along the creek in the front. Throughout the summer, the bluebirds hunt any disturbed soil in our garden for live bait. The intensity and duration of the summer-long territorial battles of the hummingbirds put manmade air combat to shame. The whir of hummingbirds surpasses the clank of metal tools against shards of rock when we are out quietly tending botanical beds around our house.
We now have multiple field guides for bird watching. I am not sure that we have identified most of the species that have frequented our yard and field, but the list is a long one: We have generic robins and jays; sparrows, swifts and swallows; nuthatches, wrens and thrashers; flycatchers, juncos, chickadees, finches and flickers; plovers and doves; starlings, blackbirds and cow birds; ducks and geese; turkeys and quail; crows and vultures. Then there are the standouts for their colors, their songs, or their names: cardinals and mockingbirds; Red-winged Blackbirds and Tufted Titmice; Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers; Eastern Bluebirds and Indigo Buntings; Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Rufous-sided Towhees; Red-tailed Hawks and Great Horned Owls; Ruby-throated Hummingbirds; Belted Kingfishers; Great and Little Blue Herons.
Most of these birds exhibit distinct feeding and territorial behaviors that add to our interest and entertainment. The swift maneuvers and strange mannerisms of these birds elicit curiosity. But it is the collective bird song in spring and summer that sweeps up our spirits. These bird songs are constant sea waves against the shoreline for inland folk. I would not swap them for the steady monotony of surf at the ocean side. The crows haunt the air from fall through early spring. The chatter of kingfishers darts around the creeks in constant alarm or disapproval. By the roadside in spring, the solitary bird songs of early morning become a commingled symphony of call, response and repeat, of mimicry and exhilaration. The mashup of a crazy mockingbird's song takes one's wind away with sheer variety and energy.
Birds and their songs are the perfect companions for the grown-up boy, out hanging around in an assortment of activities that are more piddle than substantive production. This parallel play of species evokes ideas of the kind of earthly harmony that humans can only dream about for human society. We share the air, the sun, the shade, the smells, the sounds, and the utter delight in roaming free in the great outdoors.
Proverbial canaries in a coal mine, thriving birds – or the absence of them – demonstrate for us whether conditions are healthy for living or not. We notice after a hurricane hundreds of miles away, or following times of extreme wet, drought, cold or heat, when the presence of birds diminishes and returns. From whence birds come, I cannot say for certain. I don't want them derived from dinosaurs but do find the notion poetic. They come from out of the blue and thither they go. Though many assert that dogs and cats are the best friends of mankind, I stand foursquare for the birds who defy our gravitational limitations. Just as farmers shoot animals that threaten their fields and stock, there are seasoned hunters and former warriors who fire to keep domestic pets away from wild birds. One or two we know have been willing to destroy a sparrow's nest in a bluebird box to make room for bluebirds.
It is not just the flight and song that most appeals: it is the weightlessness. It is the movement and singing that does not vary, that returns after a storm, that launches the new day, that pulls us out and away from our heavy thoughts and plodding social burdens. If "birds fly over the rainbow," then say I, why can't I lift myself up just a bit for a few more steps down life's road. Droppings on our cars, wasteful holes in our garden tomatoes, the tap-tapping on the siding of our homes, unsightly and hazardous nests high up on our outside lighting, and the raucous wakeup banter too early in the morning – all are the least we can endure for the constant companionship of our feathered fellows – the only untethered creatures around us who are friends for all seasons.