Haunted by Birds

This morning the little wild birds didn’t arrive behind my house to partake of all the seed I lovingly put in the feeders, and right away I felt that things were amiss.  I have been spending a lot of time in my office these days and I was used to them swooping in and out, chirping, sparring with one another in the air.  My little wild companions blessing me with their beauty…  Why didn’t they come?  I was clearly taking it personally.  I chose to look further into this mysterious relationship in the hopes they’d return as I wrote.


I can’t remember when I first knew that I was fascinated with birds.  Was it back in the days when my grandmother took me to the duck pond at the Palace of Fine Arts, when I was 6 or 7, and I watched the fat glossy ducks snap up our stale bread, or was it later on in childhood when I saw all the white seagulls congregating on the beach as we feasted on a picnic lunch, or later when I picked up a mangled dead bird off the ground that my cat had teased and killed, her feathers all wet and withered?  Maybe it was when I saw egrets, flamingos, blue footed boobies, and ostriches on some of my trips to far flung places.  


When I learned that birds were descended from the dinosaurs, I was thrilled at the improbability of it: these tiny delicate feathered beings are related to the tyrannosaurus and other megalithic creatures that traveled mainly on land.  I looked at them differently, I wondered about how they moved the way they did.  How did the animal that lives in the sky come from the dinosaur?  How does an animal fly?  Magic comes to mind.  We can never know this.


That’s another thing I feel about birds: they manifest magic.  They sing like no other creature and they fly.  They tend their nests with the tiny pearly white eggs, they feed their young, and dedicate their lives to survival, pure and simple.  And then there are those amazing feathers.  Not just the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, with their brilliant green and red outfits, but even the common little goldfinch, whose yellow coat screams neon sunlight …  the red wing blackbirds that visit my house at the beach – their blacker than black feathers pierced with shocking red streaks at their wings.   How did this all happen?  Birds get to be beautiful just because they are born into a family – they are endowed with beauty - and humans have to go out and buy fancy brilliant clothes to make themselves beautiful. 


Birds are comical too. Just look at the pelican, the huge pouch hanging from his beak, his strutting on land or dive-bombing into the water to feed…  Or the little snowy plovers who skitter along the wet sand as the ocean recedes, as though practicing for a dance routine … or the blue jay who looks ever ready for an argument somehow, with cocked head and piercing eyes.  The magpie is another theatrical personality in the bird world: he has a swagger about him, he is crafty, as he steals shiny objects or eggs for his own nest.  You forgive him his thievery because his iridescent feathers – brilliant blue and green blended into black, with tuxedo white accents - dress him up so beautifully.


I was named for the magpie. The why of this is inexplicable to me, as my mother had never before seen a magpie. So, why did she choose this name? All I can come up with is that she liked the sound of it, or perhaps she had learned somewhere that magpies were extraordinarily smart like their relatives the crows and ravens, and she was sure her daughter would be too.  When I lived in northern New Mexico I got to know these birds well and I fell for them. They were clever, funny, and elegant. I never saw them as mean-spirited and cruel.  I watched transfixed as a magpie or two teased my haughty black and white cat on the prowl outside our home.  The cat didn’t have a chance with these birds.  


I have been courting hummingbirds for some time now with minimal success.  I have a good friend who travels the world to watch hummingbirds in their habitats and photograph them.  Catching this bird whose wings work at the speed of electricity seems implausible to me, but he is a driven person.  I understand the compulsion, for I have purchased and put up more little feeders for these elusive creatures than I’d like to admit.  I’ve learned the key times to expect them to show up (morning and very late afternoon), and I have also figured out that you don’t need a fancy feeder.  Nice colorful flowers are often a good draw.  But I believe it boils down to being lucky and very, very patient.  If you’re outside and quiet, you can sometimes hear them clicking at you, and feel the whirr of their wings as they dart past you. They never linger, so you must continue to be patient.   


The most elusive and mysterious of creatures captivate us, they compel us to find and record them in some way.  It’s that “hard to get” thing maybe…  Even domestic cats can be that way:  marching to their own secret tune.  Birds of all kinds, whether they’re little house finches, wild parrots, or red wing blackbirds, lowly pigeons, noisy crows, or indifferent seagulls, live and survive through extraordinary efforts, and they’re not members of the human society.   They delight us when they visit for a just a little while, and then they recede effortlessly into vast air space.


They’re in bird world, and they’re free; we never know when they’ll come and how long they’ll stay.

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