The heavy, punishing rains have stopped for now, and I step out onto the sun-warmed deck facing our back yard. A third of the space is now a lake, and in the center of this six-inch deep water stand our bird feeders. One with a metal green box perched on a steel pole is full of basic mix composed of sunflower seeds, millet, yellow maize chips. The others hang eight feet away offering sunflower seeds, and suet. Tufted titmice, cardinals, sparrows, nuthatches, and the persistent chickadees are busy at each feeder. A blue jay swoops out of a nearby shrub and grabs a few seeds and disappears back into foliage. The male and female cardinals balance on the lip of a feeder to pass seeds to each other. Some of the titmice and nuthatches are juveniles, their feathers clean, bodies small, but they seem confident enough in their balance to snatch a seed and fly quickly away. Red-bellied and downy woodpeckers take turns at the cage of suet, but the younger birds do not seem intimidated by them.
For a nearly a week, here in Richmond, Virginia, a system of continuous rain pumped up the east coast from the ocean just south of Florida. Deluge after deluge. This morning the birds sound excited, singing and cheeping to one another. Their conversations find my soul. After these long, dreary days, I believe again in the life force that rain renews. And I recall that even on the wettest days birds came to the feeders, feathers soaked, and nibbled at the last bits of seed they could find.
In the prologue to his book Life of the Skies, Birding at the End of Nature, published by Picador, (a trademark used by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Jonathan Rosen explains “biophilia” as a word coined by famed biologist Edward O. Wilson, who argued that people need to “affiliate with nature in order to be happy.” Rosen wonderfully explores this phenomenon in the thirteen essays that compose his book. Many of us need to “affiliate with nature” in order to write. In his essay, Whitman’s Mockingbird, Rosen offers his explanation for why we watch birds, why we want them near us: “Birds shuttle between what is urban in us and what is wild. They knit these things together in our soul,” he says.
My own awareness of birds began while growing up on my family’s farm in Jefferson County, New York, near the Canadian border. Swallows nesting in the peak of the barn, robins strutting across the yard announcing spring, and sparrows feeding babies in their nests in the eaves were part of the landscape. Larger waterfowl traversed our property each season. Then, in middle age, my husband and I moved to a rural home in central Virginia, after decades of living in cities, and there I began to pay attention again, and study the birds of our fields and forest.
In Kent Store, Virginia, there was enough space and resources for large congregates of birds to flourish: a family of 10-12 blue birds lived in two oak trees down the road, and utilized our woods to teach their young ones to fly. Flocks of yellow finches often lit up a beech in our front yard. One day I counted thirty-five finches swooping in to rest. Just down a dirt driveway past our house I discovered a family of cardinals, several generations, perhaps, and realized they were visiting our feeders from the thick copse. During the evening, families of swallows swept the air low over the fields and filled up on insects. Such was the abundance of nourishment. But most exciting were the woodpeckers. Some, like the pileated and downy and red-bellied were permanent residents of our old oak grove, and other woodpecker species seemed to visit, staying for a few days or weeks before moving on. An excerpt from my journal for 2004:
We live with Pileated, Red-Bellied, Red Headed, Downy, Flickers, Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers, the Hairy—at home with the woodpeckers who work in the tall dead oaks and hollow live aging oaks, high in the branches killed by Gypsy Moth. Some, like the Red-Bellied nest here and rear their babies on the trees. Red-Bellied babies are all gray and have to be taught as juveniles to cling to the tree, then to cling to the tree and peck, then to hop up and down and around the tree. One morning, just before rising, I dream of a woodpecker with a solid red head and neck and a black and white body. When I awaken and look into the yard, two red-headed woodpeckers are sitting quietly on a nearby branch of an oak.
The first pileated woodpecker I viewed up close was a large male, hammering with all his power on a dead oak stump in our side yard. He was making sawdust of it, dining on the grubs within. I watched him for nearly an hour with binoculars as he sent the wood fibers flying. With my glasses, I could dwell on his markings, his mighty beak, his eye, and his size—I estimated at 15 to 18 inches. In Rosen’s book, I read about the pileated’s extinct close relative, the “Ghost Bird,” the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was thought to be 20 inches in length.
Since humans began to write, birds have been a common topic and a powerful spiritual symbol in many cultures. There are countless more sources of poetry about birds. I recommend in addition to Rosen’s Life of the Skies… :
• Bright Wings, An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds, edited by Billy Collins with paintings by David Allen Sibley, and published 2010 by Columbia University Press.
• The Untamed Garden, by David Rains Wallace, published by Collier Books, 1986.
• Urban Nature, Poems about Wildlife in the City, edited by Laure-Anne Bosselaar, published by Milkweed Editions, 2000
• Any book by Mary Oliver and Pattiann Rogers.
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