I’m not a birder. I don’t have a bird list, traveling to the far reaches of the earth to see this bird or that bird, hear a his and hers call and response, marvel at the plumage and elaborate mating dances and entangling of talons looping down to the earth in a merry-go-round free fall.
But I like birds. Their little fast movements, quirks, personalities, patterns, and chatter like old married couples or Irish twins. Curiosity about how and when they sing and to whom. If they sing to be heard or if they sing when they are sad or if they sing to feel joy. In the western form of biological sciences, we’re taught not to anthropomorphize animals, which is essentially a lousy excuse to have dominion over something, to eat it and plow it and sacrifice it. Because if we thought it was too much like us, that it had feelings and family and better navigation skills, that it could forecast weather in its sleep, it would be hard for us to make progress, whatever progress is to a capitalist and white society.
I think they sing for all the reasons.
I only got my first birdfeeder in the early throes of this pandemic, as a way to nourish the migrators and the residents, diving into research about the yellow and red finches and chickadees and bushtits and what they might want to eat in the spring. As a way to pass the time, when it was that time where time was slow, folding back and forth on itself like where the ocean meets the land, wave after wave, expanding and contracting all at once.
So, it strikes me as funny that of all the people I’ve loved who are no longer with me, I see them in the birds. My grandma – the day she died one warm October over a decade ago – I was walking around the streets of Carmel alone. Deciding if being so far away from home was the worst decision I was making. And as I rounded a corner, I froze. Up ahead, in the row of rose bushes blooming in all shades of fuchsia, mauve, blush, bubblegum pink, was a bouquet of hummingbirds. A glittering, a hover, a shimmer, a tune, a charm. All the things birders would affectionately call it. All accurate, as I watched them zig and zap and chirp at each other and perch on the delicate rosebush branches, if even for a few second as their hearts would beat on. Ruby-red throated with emerald green wings, like the Wizard of Oz came into full color on a bird. GG, my grandma, died at that moment. She did. I now understand why birds are more akin to angels.
And my dad. He was the true bird lover in the family, his strong hands scooping up a fallen robin’s nest and tucking it back into the crevice of the Bradford pear tree. Pointing out the red-tailed hawks on the country fence posts. Laying out a bushel of black oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, and cracked corn for the resident Northern redbird cardinals. Commenting on the aggressive blue jays who hustled away the sparrows from the feeders. Or the turkey vultures soaring above a hot summer day on the convective boundary layer, scaling the thermals until they were out of our sight. Taking me to see the overwintering bald eagles in the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois river, just to marvel at their wingspan. Waiting and watching for the red finch pairs to come back every spring and build small homes for their future babies in the hanging ferns.
The hour he died, that bright and green June day, those five red finch baby birds fledged the nest in their first flight. And then later, the blood red northern cardinal sitting on the blacktop of the driveway, hopping towards all of us who lingered outside on the wraparound porch as my dad’s body lay inside, no longer taking air from the room. The cardinal would advance a few hops towards us; as the conversation halted, more hops forward. Of course, we were all looking for a sign, that he was free, he knew he was loved. We took it.
Cardinals stick around southern Illinois year round, that pop of brilliant red and its black masked face a stark awakening in the middle of winter, when the trees are stripped of their leaves, cavities exposed, the ground is either white with snow or brown with a dormant exhale. The red bird with the bright orange beak is there, his mate and her warm reddish crest, tilting their heads to one side and then the next, making eye contact with me through the family room window. My mom and I inside taking turns feeding the fire. A group of cardinals – even the mating pair – are a college, conclave, radiance, even a Vatican. Nearer my god to thee. And when it lingers longer than I think makes sense for any bird to, I say aloud, “Ok, Dad, you have my attention.”