We Warners are a bit smitten with the birds this spring.
Some of this wild-bird crush can be attributed to this being our first spring in this house. At our last house the neighborhood was older and more urban. There were lots of birds, but not all the same kinds. There in town we’d see woodpeckers, nuthatches and flickers in the old maples, gold finches and hummingbirds around the perennials. If we were lucky we’d hear the whinny of screech owls on summer nights. A few springs in a row a large flock of cedar wax wings migrated through, attracted to the berries on a bush right next to the window. I remember trying to keep my little ones really quiet so we could creep up close for a better view. They were ages 3 and 1 so you can imagine how well that worked.
One winter Sunday morning we spotted a wood duck in an old silver maple out front. I remember thinking, This is why it’s OK to skip church once in a while. Sometimes we see God better out here. We kept an eye on it for what seemed like hours. And then last spring just before we moved Jon was walking the girls down the street to a neighbors’ to play on a Saturday morning. A mama wood duck dropped down to the sidewalk followed by little ducklings, plopping down on the pavement just in front of Jon and the girls. The ducklings couldn’t yet fly and were a bit dizzy and stunned from the fall out of the nest but followed their mama down the sidewalk just the same.
Last month, April, we started noticing the tree swallows. They have a nest in the neighbors’ mailbox in a little cubby between where the mail and newspaper are delivered. For the early part of the day they spend most of their time perched on the street sign in our yard or on the basketball hoop. Despite not being urban creatures, these birds seem to be unafraid of people. When the kids start congregating at the bus stop in the morning, there they stay, just above their heads. Even when the bus comes they stay. It’s as if they are seeing them off, making sure everyone’s safely boarded. They could bring new meaning to the term ‘flight attendant’. While our little buddy casually stands guard atop the basketball hoop we pull the car up and down the driveway, open and close the garage door, do yard work and play all under its fidgety watch, its listening ear. We Warners find this fascinating. I even find it calm-inducing. Why its reassuring to have a tiny bird see me off when I leave the house I’ll never know.
Maybe its because its small presence is so unfettered, mellow, faithful. He flies off out of sight but always returns. Perhaps the way it looks and sounds also play a role. The Peterson Field Guide calls its color “Steely blue-green-black above, clear white below.” Those dark feathers are enchanting the way opals are, a multi-color shimmer that changes with movement, like oil slick or soap bubbles. When it sings the tree swallow sounds like audio of the tiniest trickle of water played fast. It’s a “liquid twitter” according to the aforementioned bird book. In any case, these characteristics add to the peaceful aura about it. If everyone’s speech sounded more like “liquid twitter” the world might be a very different place.
Last Monday I was changing the sheets in one of the bedrooms upstairs when a large, rounded-at-the top pure white feather–the kind you only see in cartoons– caught my eye. I watched it float gently down just outside the window for just a second before it was snatched up in the beak of a fast-gliding tree swallow. Intentionally or not it let go of the feather, flew in a big loop like half of a figure 8 and picked up the feather again and flew away. That big feather was a treasured toy for a least a few minutes–the bird was acting like a puppy with a bone, happy as a kid on Christmas.
Now in May we have a new sidekick, a song sparrow that seems to never leave our yard. He bops around from the deck to the pines to the late-leafing black gum tree Jon planted last fall. We are a bit amazed that he can perch there at all given how fine and delicate the young branches are. But there he sits and sings, just outside the kitchen window. When he’s on the deck he might as well be in the kitchen. With the patio door pulled open it is just that loud. Loud and lovely.
The preschooler among us has her own bird story. Earlier this week Little Laura was waiting outside for her ride to school. The big kids had gone off to school already. It was foggy and cool, silent save for the birds. Laura noticed a mourning dove on a rooftop across the street. She cooed out its call: hoo-woo. woo. woo. woo. And the dove called the same thing back. She waited and called again. The dove answered again. I think they called back and forth to each other about a dozen times before her ride showed up. “Laura,” I said, “I guess you speak bird.” She was all smiles as she left. So excited to be fluent in another language.
I’m beginning to think that birds are angels incognito. Or that at the very least that they are the lovely-loud, steely-opalescent physical manifestation of the human soul.