In “Genuflection,” poet Billy Collins talks about the Irish habit of tipping one’s cap to the first magpie of the day and wishing it a good morning. We don’t have magpies where I live, but the poem made me wonder how it is that I developed the habit of greeting birds. I can’t remember when it happened, only that I’ve always done it.
I’m not particularly attuned to birds, although I like them. Truth is, they intimidate the shit out of me. I fear I’ll inadvertently do them harm. (There’s some basis to that belief, but that’s another story.)
There’s a surprising lack of birdish cacophony where I live on the edge of the woods. This is due, in part, to the presence of bird-eating raptors, but mostly, I believe, because our neighbors allow their cats to roam outside. Three of them routinely prowl through our yard, enraging our own cat, Ruby, when they dare to invade our back deck (excuse me, her back deck). Still, a fair number of birds make their presence known with song and shriek, staring danger in the face, daring those who would eat them to take note and do something about it, go ahead, I dare ya.
Two or three years before my mother’s death, when she lived with us, we installed a winter bird feeder for her enjoyment. We took it down after she died, not because we didn’t enjoy feeding the birds, but because the fallen seed drew mice and squirrels. I didn’t mind the red squirrel and his mate because they were quiet and polite. The gray squirrels, on the other hand, were marauding bastard assholes. God forbid the feeder be empty (or put away in the spring). These overblown little shits would glare at me through the slider and pound their squirrel hands against the glass. One even went so far as to try to intimidate me by scaling the side of the casement and hanging at eye-level. (I let the dog out after that one. There was no way Holly could catch him, but the mad dash for the trees made him reevaluate his trespass.)
But we were talking about birds.
The feeder gathered a pair of cardinals (I’d never realized the muted glory that is the female of the species until she landed right in front of me, separated by the glass of the slider), black-capped chickadees, northern flickers, raucous blue jays, a single Carolina wren (who, sated, would perch on the edge of the feeder, in the winter’s sun, and close its eyes in warm bliss), dark eyed juncos, downy woodpeckers (who often as not drilled the side of the house rather than the hanging blocks of suet), house finches, mourning doves, pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmouse (titmice? titmeese?), nuthatches, and wood thrush.
Crows gather first thing in the morning to caw and gossip, and I always speak to them. When we first moved here, a red-tailed hawk would drop onto the same branch every time she saw me outside reading, and we’d talk, exchanging news, first her calling softly, then me replying. The morning sun is heralded from the top of a cottonwood by the mister of the cardinal clan (a service for which he’s thanked), and the autumn sky is slashed by the dark chevron of Canada geese, their bicycle-horn cry filling the air long before they’re seen and long after they depart. At night, it’s the owls–most often the great-horned–who greet me before bed. If I’m patient and sit still, I can call back to him and he’ll fly in close.
It’s much the same on the marsh trail where I walk the dog. The ducks we encounter (mallards, wood ducks, buffleheads, mergansers, and many others I can’t name) are shy, elusive, and would rather not converse. Geese warn us to “Keep that wolf away!” Hawks of all sorts. The baby owl who perched on an eye-level branch not two feet away and kept up a living dialogue for several minutes. (“Is this the world?! Isn’t it amazing?!”) The occasional glimpse of bald eagles (always silent, little more than a silhouette in the morning mist), an egret, and once, an astonishing pair of ibis with their curved beaks. The catbird who let me approach within inches. The orioles and their sweet music. Goldfinches bright as hoarded pirate doubloons, a rare waxwing.
I greet them all, speak to them en masse or individually, but the ones I never fail to herald are the heron; motionless, all but disguised among the upright trunks of drowned and broken trees, head dipped just so seeking the tell-tale flicker of fish or frog. Clad in blue-gray, they strike me as almost ecclesiastical, the priests and priestesses of the marshland. To them I accord a moment’s pause on my walk, a deep bow, and a murmured, “Good morning, Your Grace.” God knows what I look like from a distance to other walkers, bending from the waist like one of those “drinking bird” toys that bobs down to a glass of water back. Maybe I’m becoming the crazy lady of the swamp.
Works for me.