Going to the Birds

Bird watching becomes a beautiful witnessing

The other evening, I was early for a meeting and found myself lounging around our village school’s playground — basically, swinging aimlessly and without real commitment on the small swing set. I’ve been swinging on this particular swing set — off and on — for the last 50 years.

My twirling gave way as I realized that I was being watched.

A small flock of pigeons was perched up on the most perch-able and highest point in town — the upper roof of our church. I sat for about a half hour, watching them, as they watched me. On their own avian schedule, they would take off as a flock and wheel over my head — flying low — before circling back to the church roof.

I don’t know birds. Oh — I can tell a goose from a goldfinch — but I don’t know much else about what makes them tick.

I was on the verge of being swallowed up in fear by my memories of that awful schoolyard scene from The Birds, when I realized that these birds are more or less old friends.

The flock belongs to my brother-in-law Tim Gallagher, who lives about 100 yards away from the old church. They are a gorgeous sight as they wheel around overhead, circling the schoolyard. The silver undersides of their wings flash in the sun.

Tim and his wife, my sister Rachel, ARE bird people. Tim is an internationally known falconer, who travels around the world flying falcons, and both Tim and Rachel have written extensively about birds — and the people who love and study them.

Me? Not so much. First of all, my twisted logic has always been that if I’m surrounded by bird enthusiasts, I don’t need to become one. I am expertise-adjacent, and that has always been fine by me.

Lately, however, I’ve become more aware of and fascinated by the dozens of birds I encounter in the course of a normal day. When I asked my brother-in-law Tim about his pigeons, he responded: “I’ve liked pigeons since I was a kid in elementary school. Other backyard birds I see or hear almost every day are White breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, American Robin, Carolina Wren Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Chipping Sparrow, etc. etc. etc.”

Etc. Etc. Etc. It turns out that once you start noticing something — the noticing takes on a life of its own.

My neighbors have ospreys with hatchlings in a massive nest in back of their house. There is a lone and majestic eagle I regularly see soaring over our back field.

These dudes — lined up like sentries — stare into my bedroom window each morning.

This hawk always hangs out in this same spot along a back road near me, presumably searching for prey. I say hello every time I pass by.

And last July a bright red cardinal appeared at my front window, diving up and down, up and down on repeat for about 20 minutes. Was this beautiful cardinal trying to get into the house? I’ve often heard the phrase: “When cardinals are here, angels are near.” It’s hard not to view this brilliant red bird as trying to convey a message of some sort.

My ignorance about birds gives me license to imagine their motivations. I’ve decided that they are, in some sense, watching over me. Witnessing my own life, just as I witness theirs.

It occurs to me that this witnessing is both the least — and also the most — that any of us can do.

Watch this fascinating story from CBS Sunday Morning about Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison’s discovery of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, long-thought extinct.

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DEPARTMENTS

Railey Jane Savage’s “Junk Food: Stuff I consume to feel better”

Railey writes:

“Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!

As a babe-in-arms in the mid-1980s I looked out the back window, pointed my chubby, grabby baby finger and declared, ‘Bird.’ This was my first word. And since I made that first backyard ID over 30 years ago I haven’t really stopped talking, which dovetails perfectly with my current junk food: The Music Man

Shortly after I started talking, my gift for parroting presented itself. To my family’s dismay I could recite entire scenes while watching, practically ruining the viewing experience of anyone else in the room. Though I have (mostly) broken myself of this habit when Music Man has been blaring this past week I have sung along with every note. I didn’t think I’d remember as much as I do, but when the VCR whirred and the un-rewound tape led with pick-a-little-talk-a-little-cheep-cheep-cheep I was grinning and, soon enough, singing along. Loudly.

I have lots—LOTS—to say about this 1962 version of the 1954 musical, which takes place in 1912. The gist is that a flimflamming salesman talks a big game in River City, Iowa only to find that, through his grift, he has become part of the community; the Music Man’s song and dance was the final descant in the town’s swelling score.

(As a student of American con artists and mid-century musicals my fandom for this story is layered, and deep.) 

The musical both does, and does not age well. Whatever biting gender satire was originally intended in the 50s libretto has dulled in the interceding years, but the Capital-P-and-that-rhymes-with-T-and-that-stands-for______ attitude remains horribly relevant.

The music in The Music Man still sings, though; as my TV blared and I belted I saw my neighbor stop watering her flowers to listen until she recognized the song and a smile creep-creep-creeped across her face as she, too, began to sing along.

LAURA LIKES:

(Where my friend Laura recommends GREAT STUFF)

LAURA WRITES:

“I'm not sure how it took me so long to figure out that when you're out walking around in a place with no shade to speak of, you can always take your own shade with you.

I never in my life thought of parasols as anything but extreme bridal accessories, something you have to have if you want to be one of the Azalea Trail Maids, or just want to relive the glory days of Cypress Gardens, Florida

But when I lived in Washington, DC, I constantly saw people wandering around on the National Mall toting around open umbrellas.

After the initial confusion, a light went off inside my head. "Oh, right," I thought. "Parasols, what a good idea. I guess they don't have to be all ruffled and whatnot."

I know, I know, everybody everywhere but America understands this idea of "you know, you don't have to just stand there and roast, you could put up a parasol or something," but when you live someplace that you don't see that sort of thing every day, it's easy to forget.

I live amongst sturdy Midwestern Calvinists who have been taught to accept solar punishment as part of their generalized atonement obligations. 

So hey, it's summertime, and here's a reminder: parasols are awesome. They force you to walk a bit more slowly, carry yourself a bit more elegantly, and allow you to be at least a tiny bit less miserable trudging around in the hot sun.

I personally like the traditional oiled paper umbrellas, which are lightweight and cast plenty of shade without you feeling claustrophobic and odd under an immense dark-colored brolly in the blazing summer sun when the skies are not cloudy all day.*

They're inexpensive and you can usually find them at larger Asian markets (unless you decide to go whole-hog and get a fancy antique one, which you can totally do online), so you don't feel bad about it if it gets wrecked or lost. They work wonders at garden parties, too. 

Bonus idea: they make a great graduation gift for incoming first-years  who have not yet experienced the dubious joys of traversing all-concrete-and-glass shadeless college quads in late August.”

(OH — and do yourself a favor and take in this short and extremely sweet and lovely rendition of “Home on the Range” by the KU Wind Ensemble, which — for many reasons — is making me cry right now…)

EMILY MASON’S Targeted Upsell: What the Internet wants me to buy

Emily writes:

“What’s New?

If you’re stuck in an apartment like me with very limited access to wildlife and nature, then maybe its time to bring the wilds indoors!

I’ve recently discovered Rise Garden, an all-in-one hydroponic garden system. 

As far as I can tell, this system ranges in size from tabletop, to full-blown multi-tiered growing system, and it’s almost completely self-contained. And it’s easy to use. You plant the seed pods of your choice, plug this baby in, and it self-waters! Grow lights help maintain the plants! With limited effort, you can turn your home into an oasis and grow your own food! 

….Inside your home! 

So you’re...growing your own food inside your home! Where you live your tidy, tidy life!

Ohhhh-kay!

Why am I seeing this?

I looked up “healthy recipes with leafy greens” one time. ONE. TIME. 

Did they sell me?

As a concept, I love this. Yay! More indoor plants! 

However...I’m gonna have to pass. 

Rise Garden’s marketing department seems to think that it’s a multi-purpose piece of furniture. So...this is supposed to grow food and also keep my stuff off the floor?

(Sure! Put your books on here, it’s not doing anything important!)

I don’t want to store my stuff close to the food I plan to consume, and I definitely don’t want to grow vegetables next to my couch. My couch has...seen things.

And despite the perfectly-orderly pictures, I don’t see Rise gardens staying self-contained, or particularly tidy, for very long. I know first-hand that gardening in any form gets messy. Fast.

So this will be a pass, but at least I won’t have lettuce attempting a hostile takeover of my apartment. Not this week anyway.”

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