I want to tell you about the birds, the ones I’ve been watching for months now, as closely as I’ve ever watched anything. There is a stillness when I watch them — their presence demands mine. But there is everything else, too. What stirs in them stirs in me, emotions that fall beyond the reach of language.
It started with desire. For years, I’d wanted to know the names of birds, to be able to identify them. To know things, we must start with learning their names. Only then can we unlearn the names and understand the thing being experienced, as well as the thing doing the experiencing — that thing we call the self.
A pair of binoculars arrived in the mail this fall, along with a set of bird identification flashcards. Both were gifts from my partner. I spliced memorizing the cards with staring out my window through the binoculars. My days were woven in this way: memorize, stare, memorize, stare. I ran my fingers over the birds’ printed forms while saying their names. Fox sparrow. House sparrow.1 Lark sparrow. White-throated sparrow. I had no idea there were so many sparrows. At first, my yard only offered up house sparrows. Eventually, a pair of white-throated sparrows arrived and dazzled me with their black-and-white helmets. Thrilled that I could identify them, I screamed their name in the style of a blue jay’s alarm call: “White-throated sparrow! White-throated sparrow!” The soundwaves my voice created hit the glass in front of me. The pane indifferently refracted the vibrations.
My world swelled after I realized there was more than one type of sparrow. How crude was my perception that I had lumped so many species into one? I widened my search from my backyard to area parks, meadows, tallgrass prairies, wetlands, and wildlife refuges waiting for the quiet to be parted by a sound akin to a flutist trilling while playing wind tones on her instrument. No note, just the airy pairing of consonants amplified by the flute’s long silver body. “Trrrrrr, trrrrrr.” The trills lasted a few seconds, long enough for a sparrow to move from the meadow to a nearby tree, or from a blade of grass to the water, or simply to move away from me. “Trrrrrr, trrrrrr.” A scramble of wings. Most of the time, I saw no more than a smear of color, like someone swiping oil paints with his thumb. Then nothing. Silence returned. It was a companion, this silence. I came to feel as if both of us were waiting for another bird to stir — to relieve my disquiet and to relieve silence of the burden of being silence.
Not every sparrow was a smear. I saw my first savannah sparrows at Heritage Park, where they foraged in patchy grass near an old brick silo. Like an accent color used sparingly, yellow patches above their eyes elevated their otherwise drab appearance. I first saw Harris’s sparrows at the Tallgrass Prairie Nature Preserve. They scurried into a group of shrubs as my partner and I drove past. They seemed to pose as I trained my binoculars on them. One had the darkest face and crown of any Harris’s sparrow I’ve seen so far, features that would ensure a high rank among his quarrel. The wheat-colored spots on either side of his head made him look like he was wearing earmuffs.
I saw white-crowned sparrows for the first time at the preserve where I saw the Harris’s sparrows. They were part of a flutter mobbing the feeder outside the educational center. My first fox sparrow surprised me at Longview Lake. I hadn’t heard its trill as it left the meadow, but suddenly it poked its head out of an evergreen just above me. “This is the red sparrow,” I thought. “Red, red, red. Red like the fox.” That was the same day we saw a rangy coyote on the side of the highway. How slow the animal seemed, how sapless, a stark contrast to the birds in the meadow.
Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Preserve gave me my first song sparrows. My first chipping sparrows hugged the water at the KCP&L Wetlands, a visit that was also notable because of the racist and anti-Semitic graffiti someone had carved into the bird blind at the wetland’s entrance.
Baker Wetlands offered up the shy Le Conte’s sparrow, whom I happened upon as I was taking a photo of the switchgrass next to a mowed path. He balanced between two blades, one foot on each, exposing his blond breast and white belly. He sang, but I don’t remember his song. I was overcome by his beauty: his soft gold face and striped crown, the patchwork of browns on his back that reminded me of the mottling on a hawk, his cocked tail. I was also overcome with how blithe he seemed, surfing in the grass, body shifting and shifting again in the air. “Alive,” I thought. “This bird is alive, through and through.” I had been reading about the Le Conte’s sparrow the day before visiting Baker, though I didn’t make the connection until later. What I read described them as being difficult to see because of their secretive nature. The phrase “secretive nature” made it sound like the Le Conte’s was a gumshoe, a spy, or worse — nothing like the glib creature I had encountered.
Lake Perry is not where I had my first or even second American tree sparrow sighting, but it is here where I had my most meaningful experience with them. I found them where the edge of the lake fed a small inlet. There, surrounded by trees, the tree sparrows (and a few song sparrows) pulsed and trundled at the water’s edge like sprites. They were bathing, and I was watching without their knowledge. I’d crept across a rough-shorn field and made my way through unkempt trees to bear witness to this ritual. All along the section of the shore, as well as in the inlet, sparrows bobbled, sending a volley of water droplets in every direction. I’d never seen anything more joyful, and that joy found its way into my body. “This little world,” I thought. “What have I been missing?” I felt like I’d been born the wrong size. The human-sized world was not nearly as enchanting as this Lilliputian one.
Not unlike the Le Conte’s sparrow, I am becoming more secretive as I watch birds. I skulk about in their world, which has no need for me. I move slowly. I crouch. I crawl. I sit motionless with my legs crossed until parts of my body go numb. I stand looking out and out, seemingly at nothing. My partner makes line drawings of the landscape as he waits for me. Or he listens to podcasts. Or he goes on walks that loop back to where he will find me, still sitting or standing in the same place.
But I am not in the same place. The stillness, the watching — and what I am watching — is changing me in ways that words can’t properly express. Basho’s come close:
attached to nothing,
the skylark singing.
Perhaps that’s it, or at least part of it. The birds are attached to nothing. I am attached to nothing. There we are, held together by the field, singing with life.
- I just learned that house sparrows aren’t actually sparrows. They are weaver finches.