St. Valentine’s Day… For the Birds

Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day and the annual battle between the romantic and the cynic within me. On the outside, the cynic nearly always wins. It is too easy to openly mock the day as one, if not created, at least cultivated and commercialized, by Hallmark.  Inside, however, the romantic always fights back, aided if I am in a relationship on that fateful day by the usually unavailable pragmatist who understands the value of proclaiming and celebrating love.  And if commercialization of the holiday is not enough to keep the cynic on top, I ready my quiver of religious objection. Martyrs supporting church politics never have fared well with me.

In spite of it all, however, the romantic cannot be denied, and just as I proclaim my objections, deep inside me a helpless lover screams with a soft voice. And then this year, with the hanakwansolstimas season finally over I began dating a lovely woman who declared Valentine’s Day to be her favorite holiday. Suddenly, the romantic who so readily surfaces for writing with fountain pens, shaving with a straight razor, cooking with cast iron, using a clothesline, and the like finds himself face to face with his one last holdout.

“Who cares if it’s a commercial holiday?” she asks. “Isn’t any excuse to celebrate love a good excuse?”

I know she is right. And after all, it’s not like I would ever go out and buy someone else’s words and images mass produced for profit. I will do the same things I love to do year round–pick flowers by the roadside, surprise her with something creative, cook for her from scratch. Why not do it on February 14th? And yet, even with the romantic surfacing, the other voices, the one’s I have honored my entire life on this one day every year, are not silent. Someone asks me about my plans for tonight, and for a moment I freeze. Can I really say, “Yes we are having a special night just for Valentine’s day?” Can I not respond to the naysayers that I love to love, that I love to celebrate romance?

A couple hours ago I Googled Valentine’s day and found a surprise. Did you know that this day, named to honor a Christian Martyr, became a day for lovers in celebration of the songbirds who find their mates this time of year? Birds partnering for a season of love and procreation. Birds!

I got to thinking about my relationship with birds. I watch them, I feed them, I read about them and write about them, tell stories about them. I have a romantic relationship with them. I do not, however, visit the Cracker Barrel store and buy cheap bluebird houses with fake flowers and bible verses painted on them.

In the same way, the commercialization of plastic disposables does not make me buy Gillette, nor does it make me stop shaving. The same can be said for coffee. I don’t run out and buy Starbucks every morning, nor have I given up coffee. I hand grind beans in my own kitchen. I do not throw the baby out with the bathwater anywhere else, so why on this day and on this subject?

If I can take this path in nearly every other facet of my life, why not refuse to buy the heavily marketed flowers and sappy cards off the rack, while still honoring a day for romance? I am an undeniable hopeless romantic 364 days out of the year. This year I will turn over a new leaf and add one more day.

So, Vive la Valentine’s Day… for the love of birds! And I can’t wait to surprise my Valentine tonight. She will never expect the sunflower seeds I have in store for her…

Here Comes the Goony Bird, and I say… It’s Alright!

The boat mustn’t have been more than sixteen feet long but from my perch in the bow, my father who sat on the rear bench, his right hand on the steering arm of the fat green Johnson Outboard with the Cadillac-like wings, could not have been farther away. The drone of the motor made conversation at anything less than a shout impossible and kept my morning song to myself.

The song, always the same, repeated over and over as the fiberglass tri-hull slid smoothly through the epidermis of the until now unspoiled morning water.

Little darlin’ it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter. Little darlin’ it feels like years since it’s been clear…

The air was still. A scattered mist hanging low and flat curled away behind us as we disrupted the calm. Pockets of warm air, unseen, seemingly random and without explanation, fleeted too quickly. My only harbor against the chill between, a heavy flannel buttoned to the neck. Tucked beneath my thigh, a narrow brimmed fishing hat chosen to look like the one my grandfather wore was of no help. My ears were cold.

Rounding the bend towards the Lee Pike Bridge a first glimpse of hope splintered through pines.

Here comes the sun, doo-dum-doo-doo. Here comes the sun, and I say, it’s alright…

Daddy eased back on the throttle and angled the boat towards the shore. I stopped singing and looked back at him. “Look,” he said. “A goony bird!” He was pointing ahead where a snag had fallen into the water. Up the log and almost hidden by shoreline vegetation, the goony bird was in charge like the turtles who were sure to take over the next shift in their own midday sun worship. Like a turtle on alert, the goony bird’s head was pulled in close to his shoulders, nearly belying the longish neck folded beneath. A slice of the morning sun, generously released by the pines (for this very purpose I believe), highlighted bright yellow legs.

As we glided too close for ease, the neck appeared and the goony leaned forward, lifted its wings and awkwardly lifted itself away from the shore with strong stiff beats and banked away from us. I smiled at Daddy. He smiled back.

“Let’s troll for a while.”

“Okay.”

The motor idled with just enough fuel to keep it running—a little faster than an ideal trolling speed, but the best it had to offer. I flipped a roostertail behind us, closed the bale on my reel and hooked the six-pound line with my finger. The spinner engaged and the rod bent as if under the load of a fish. Daddy cast a balsa minnow out the other side of the boat and we followed the lake’s marge around the contours of the land. Somewhere beneath us under fifteen feet of water the bank of Possum Creek, buried for thirty years by Chickamauga Dam, made the same shape.

“Did you see the crane back there?”

“Yeah,” I answered, smiling.

“I don’t know why they keep flying ahead of us. You’d think they would make one flight around us and land back where they were instead of flying forward a little bit, letting us catch up, then doing it again, and again.”

“And again, and again, and again.”

“They must be related to the goony bird.”

“Yeah, they’re goony alright.”

“You’re goony.”

“I guess I am.”

Countless were the mornings that began with a near-dawn tap on the shoulder, a quick quiet dress so as to not wake the rest of the family who would likely still be in bed upon our return a couple hours later.

Just Daddy and me on the lake we called a creek that would team with ski boats shortly after breakfast, but which for the precious time that bridged first light and first meal of the day, was ours.

It would be a few years before I would paddle a canoe with binoculars and bird guide on the same water, re-identifying the goony and the crane as green-backed and blue herons and feel pity on my father for his lack of knowledge.

But now, as I look through the back window of the log home lived in by Nina Leopold Bradley for thirty-plus years, and browse Nina’s meticulously kept phenological records of everything that bloomed, crawled, flew or otherwise resided in her yard on the edge of the prairie, I find myself slightly chilled by scientific Latin and field guide perfection, and longing for the days of goony birds and cranes.

There is great purpose and affect in these records—indications of changes over time reflecting results of climate change, habitat destruction or degradation, over-hunting, predator extirpation, and the introduction of invasive species. Records like these give proof and ammunition to scientists looking for answers and solutions. Without them, who knows what countless species might be lost and habitats destroyed.

But for the romantic, the artist, the impassioned observer who might not know a white-throated sparrow from a great egret, but for whom a morning call of “oh-sweet, Canada-Canada-Canada,” the evening aggregations of great long-legged, brilliantly bright birds flying to their roosts, and the early spring blooming of the three-leafed, three-petal blood-red flower inspire poetry and song, eases stress, and beckons as powerfully as to any Darwin, Latin terms and proper names would only sour.

Back in the days of fishing Possum Creek with Daddy, he had a habit when faced with uncertainty of saying “I’m just going to do something, even if it is wrong.” This sentiment frustrated a young boy trying to follow the tenets of his grandfather’s religion that left little room for wrong steps, much like the records of the biologist leave no space for incorrect identification.

I open up Nina’s once impeccable journal, now kept haphazardly since her death a few months ago, and begin a list of the birds I see: cardinals, downy woodpeckers, purple finches, goldfinches, titmice and blue jays at feeders, nuthatches, juncos, and white-throated sparrows gleaning beneath, a pileated woodpecker and waxwings on the edge of the woods, Canada geese and sandhill cranes flying overhead, and in the yard robins and… a little sparrow-looking bird with some chestnut on either side of the crown and a dark patch behind the eye. I want to make a guess, to write something down. Rufous-crowned sparrow perhaps? Seems I remember a sparrow by that name in Arizona. I look through the house for a field guide with no luck.

I hold my pen, staring at the page, then at the yard where the little bird was browsing seeds at the edge of the prairie a few moments ago. It is gone and I try to remember—clear breasted or streaked? Was there an eye streak or a patch? Wing bars? It must have been a rufous-crown, I think, looking back to the page.

Rising from my seat at the window, I walk to my bag on the couch, retrieve my personal journal, and sit down to write. October 13, 2011, Baraboo, Wisconsin, Nina’s house—entry number one: rufous-headed fluff bird. Record complete, I walk outside, scattering birds in all directions and head across the prairie towards the pond in search of the elusive goony… and I sing.

Little Darling. I feel the ice is slowly melting. Little Darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear. Hear comes the sun. Here comes the sun, and I say… It’s all right.

Squirrels: Rodents… or Role Models?

It is January and only four bird feeders hang in my small urban yard, down from the six of spring and summer. Flanking the house to the north and south and visible to office and dining room windows, tube feeders filled with sunflower seeds attract house finches, Carolina chickadees, an occasional pine siskin and a plethora of introduced European house sparrows. Sharing the dining room windows on the sunnier side of the property, a sock filled with thistle seeds invites goldfinches and house finches. In the back yard, hanging beneath a young hackberry tree, a suet feeder appeals mostly to mockingbirds, while the hoped-for woodpeckers—downy, hairy and red-bellied, along with their cousins the yellow-bellied sapsuckers, stick to the meals nature provides beneath the bark of the larger trees. Around the backyard, Carolina wrens find insects in leaf litter while ruby-crowned kinglets hunt bugs in the trees; song sparrows, white-throated sparrows and northern cardinals forage for seeds; and doves, both mourning and turtle, find scraps wherever they are able, spending much of their days roosting in the higher branches unbothered by the woodpeckers tapping around them. The occasional red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks visit the yard–red tails for the squirrels, “Coops,” for the concentration of songbirds around the feeders. Dove in talons, they often dine from the same limbs preferred by their prey.

Resting on the table along with two bird guides and a journal, my binoculars sit ready to distract me from chores, meals, bathing, work…other distractions. It is a nervously flitting kinglet which pulls me away from the dishes this morning. It’s size and activity make it readily identifiable without glasses, but I want a closer look. The male of the species sports a brilliant ruby crown which is invisible from most angles, but radiates more brilliantly than a hummingbird’s throat when the angle is right. This one was too quick for me, but before I set down the binoculars, another movement in the yard catches my attention.

There are always squirrels around my property. They glean leftovers beneath the bird feeders and find occasional snacks in the compost pile. Always nervous, they rarely stop moving. Even when feeding, their tails flick and their heads cock one way then the other as they scan the sky for hawks. But this morning, the two squirrels in the corner of the yard were not thinking about predators. Gently, they circled one another, paused to examine each other’s reproductive parts then faced again—one circling, then the other. They were slow, deliberate, and gentle as they prepared for the predictable. When ready, the male carefully mounted his mate. I expected chattering and proverbial bunny-like actions—quick, staccato, brief. Instead, he eased himself into position, embraced his partner, pressed himself against her, rotated his hips inward and held himself there. For ten or fifteen seconds (a long tome for rodents, I suspect) they kept their position. Business complete, he dismounted her just as gently as he had mounted then she turned to face him. There was a moment of grooming around the necks and faces of each other then, together, they scurried around the tree and disappeared.

Although I see squirrels when I watch the birds, I have never spent much time watching them. They’re rodents. If given the chance, they will decimate a bird feeder, chew through wiring or make a mess of an attic with their nest and keep homeowners awake at night. I have always categorized them, along with the feral cats in the neighborhood, as hawk food. Having now seen them in such a moment of intimacy, however—slow dancing through their reproductive ritual rather than doing the jitterbug, him engaging in tender foreplay instead of running her down and pinning her to a limb, the two of them taking a moment to just be together afterward—I had to rethink. Perhaps these little critters with their luxurious tails, and light chestnut patches on their speckled grey flanks deserve a little more respect.

Mine is an urban neighborhood and watching the squirrels this morning reminded me of the many undereducated young men wandering the streets and alleys here who father many children from as many different women–wearing the number of children they have as a badge of honor. A majority of the children on some streets have fathers in jail and more children are raised by grandparents than by parents. Of the half-dozen little boys who visit my porch for stories and play football in my yard, not one has a father at home, four are raised  by grandparents and at least two have fathers in prison.

I don’t know if there is a valid comparison between these men and the squirrel I watched this morning. I don’t know if the rodent couple in my tree will be monogamous. I don’t know if he will be a good father, provide for his offspring, remain true to his mate, or if she will have many partners. Perhaps he is already impregnating another. Maybe he will be gorging at the compost while several females tend to their nests alone. I suppose I could study them and find the truth, but I would rather take my observation of gentle, tender behavior and extrapolate. I would rather run with an anthropomorphic assessment of a wild moment and believe that squirrels are somehow honorable and moral, caring, nurturing and loving. I want to believe that we can look anywhere in nature, even to the squirrels, for an example of how we as humans ought to interact.

Of course I know better than this. What about the infamous black widow who devours her mate or the parrots in Australia I saw recently on PBS who fly miles upon miles to mate with as many partners as possible or the leghorn rooster who dominates the yard and lords over his hens?

I have been warned of the dangers of anthropomorphism but I am a romantic, and I am also a big fan of nature and all her processes. Any day now I am certain to see one of those red-tailed hawks in my yard, wings guarding a meal of freshly-killed squirrel and I know that her dinner might very well be one of the lovers I watched this morning. At that moment I will have a choice. I can either cling to my romanticism and mourn the loss of a good father, or I can be amazed by the prowess of the predator. Most  likely, I will not put much thought into it. As I run for the binoculars to get a better look, I will pump my fist like Tiger Woods after an eagle putt and root for the hawk.

After this morning’s observations I will probably pay a little bit more attention to the squirrels from now on as I feed the songbirds that in turn feed the accipiters, but I will not avoid anthropomorphizing when I do. I will, however, look for the lessons to be found as I apply human traits to the animals–appreciating both the lovemaking of squirrels and the hunting prowess of hawks;  and I will continue to agonize over the situation among so many young people in the neighborhood, realizing that whatever lessons might abound in nature, they probably won’t notice the squirrels and, if they did, would be unlikely to learn anything from them about parenting and respect. Those, I’m afraid, are values we humans must find a way to teach our own children…by our own examples.

For the Birds

It’s 7:55 a.m. and I’ve been staring at my computer screen for nearly an hour.  Somewhere close by, outside my window, there’s a Carolina wren calling.  Twice, I stepped out on the porch to see, but it hushed as soon as I opened the door and I couldn’t find it.  Each time, as soon as I sat back down, it called again.  I’ve been seeing and hearing them a lot lately, but usually from midday to late afternoon – not at first light.  They talk a lot this time of year, but I don’t hear them singing.  They only repeat a single, harsh, mono-syllabic, grunt, as if they just learned their first word and want to practice it, or maybe they just want to let each other know they’re still there, and haven’t been eaten by a cat or anything.  Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!  It doesn’t sound particularly friendly, but they are polite.  One calls, then another.  They rarely talk over each other.  I could learn a lesson in manners from them.

Nearly an hour ago, a cardinal filled the thin morning air with a rich, eager call.  Peterson calls them northern cardinals and describes their call as What-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer! But I’m certain these are southern birds.  No northern bird would pronounce “cheer” with two  syllables like these.  It’s more like, What-chee-er, what-chee-er, what-chee-er, what-chee-er! 

Yesterday, for the first time in several weeks, I saw a pair of Turtle Doves on my street.  Not since November 7th, have I seen two turtle doves anywhere in my neighborhood.  That was the day I found the pile of feathers just north of my front porch – right outside my office window.  Before that, the pair made  daily appearances.  They would land on the porch rail, fly over to the fence between my yard and Miss Lucy’s property, then on to Miss Lucy’s tree and finally, to the bird bath.  After a drink, they would stop one more time on my porch rail before flying south to spend most of their day down on 19th street either in the vacant lot or on one of the telephone lines that cross Mitchell.

Immediately after the murder, I didn’t see either bird for several days.  Then, one morning, I heard the soft, telltale call.  Hoo-hroo, hoo-hrooo.  I ran to the porch to see a single bird flying to a telephone pole two doors down from me.  A single bird.  I had never seen a turtle dove alone before.  They are always in pairs.  I had to fight back the anger I felt toward the cat in order to fully feel sorrow for the dove.  Anger is powerful that way, and as a result, I think that we humans sometimes miss out on the depth and richness of sorrow – a beautiful emotion when anger isn’t drowning it out. 

It’s strange but even now, several weeks later and after he has found a new partner, I still get that heavy feeling in my chest when I think about him out there alone.  And I still get a little angry when I see the black and white cat I pegged for the deed.

I have referred to the lone turtle dove as “he” ever since the murder, but of course I don’t know what sex it is.  Male and Female turtle doves look identical.  I tried calling it “she” but it just didn’t feel right.  I’m sure Freud or Robert Bly could explain why I’m that way.  Of course they would probably also have something to say about my thoughts on anger and sorrow. 

Yesterday there was a hairy woodpecker across the street in one of the big, old trees on the alley.  I wish I could plant big, old trees in my yard to draw the woodpeckers over here.  I talked to the folks at the nursery but they don’t sell “big, old trees.”  I told them that they should.  I think there would be a market for them.

The northern mockingbirds are singing now.  I love their varied, melodic songs and having almost never seen them in Chicago, always associated them with the south and home.  Given my associations with them, I would love to cast them as southerners too, but I don’t really have a good argument for changing their name – definitely not as solid an argument as for the cardinal.  In fact, I could more easily argue the contrary.  They certainly don’t exhibit good southern manners – always making fun of the other birds, chasing after the crows, talking out of turn.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing northerners.  I’m just drawing a contrast between acceptable southern behavior and the behavior of mockingbirds.  That’s all.  Some of the best mannered people I know are northerners.  Linda O’Callahan, for instance and Gail Permenter.  Lovely, northern women with delightful manners… 

There are three empty lots across the street from me.  All three are owned by Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises and all are for sale.  Yesterday, men with chainsaws and a chipper cut down nearly every tree, bush, and hedge on all three properties, reduced them to chips and drove away with the remains.  The sparrows loved the hedges and the grackles and starlings filled the trees.  Mockingbirds and cardinals frequented the bushes.  If I were building a house on one of those lots, I would want the habitat.  I’m relieved that they at least left the two biggest, oldest trees.  The new property owners will be able to plant bushes, but not big, old trees.

The wrens are calling again. Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!  I wish they would say something else.  When they want to, they are capable of singing a beautiful song. I think they might be sad about the missing trees.  Or, perhaps they’re mourning murdered neighbors. Or, maybe all they’re saying is “Hey! Hey!Hey! Hey! Hey!”