Bird Roll Call: January 25, 2018

  • American crow3
  • American goldfinch1
  • American robin1,2,4
  • Black-capped chickadee4
  • Blue jay1,4
  • Cackling goose2
  • Canada goose1,2,4,5
  • Crolina wren (heard)1,4
  • Common goldeneye2
  • Dark-eyed junco1,2,4
  • Duck sp. (overhead)5
  • Downy woodpecker1,4
  • Eastern bluebird2
  • European starling1,3,4,5
  • Falcon sp.5
  • Gadwall2
  • Great blue heron2,3
  • Hairy woodpecker2
  • Herring gull2
  • Hooded merganser2
  • House finch1
  • House sparrow1
  • Mallard2,4,5
  • Mourning dove1,3,4,5
  • Northern cardinal1,4
  • Northern flicker1,2
  • Pine siskin (juvenile, I believe)2
  • Red-bellied woodpecker1,4
  • Red-headed woodpecker4
  • Red-tailed hawk2,3,4
  • Ring-billed gull1,2,4
  • Rock pigeon6
  • Tufted titmouse2,4
  • White-throated sparrow1,4
  • Wood duck4
  • Yellow-rumped warbler2

The faint “pip, pip, pip” of juncos woke me this morning. Just as I sat down to watch birds, an American robin appeared on a utility line out of nowhere. (They’re stealthy like that: not there and then there and then not there again.) Northern cardinals ate from the safflower seed feeder. A group of four dark-eyed juncos — the source of at least some of the pipping — gathered to feed on spilled nyjer seed. Gulls flew over and all the birds disappeared.

Who am I? What do I believe? What do I value? What is my worth? These are questions I wrote in the margins of my bird journal. I had things to work through as I watched the birds today. Make that every day.

Squirrels raced up and down the trees like fleas over a dog’s back. I thought about a study with crows at the University of Washington that showed fear of harmful people was passed down through generations. Participants in the study wore a specific mask while trapping and banding crows, something the crows aren’t fond of. Thereafter, the crows would scold anyone they saw wearing the same mask. Eleven years after the study, the crows on the UW campus still reacted negatively to anyone with the mask on, even though they themselves never had any direct experience with the masked individuals. (That is, they had never been trapped or banded by anyone wearing the mask.) I thought about trauma in humans and how it’s passed down from one generation to the next. Birds appear to have a region in their brains that is not unlike the human amygdala, an area of the brain that is believed to show increased activity in people who have experienced trauma.

The female northern flicker landed on one of my sweetgums. A male followed. He initiated a mating dance. She hopped away. He hopped closer. He tried the mating dance again. She did not reciprocate. They flew off together after a blue jay came crashing down near them.

Nobody’s opinions define or defile my opinions. Nobody’s beliefs nullify my beliefs. Nobody’s experiences supplant my experiences. Nobody’s approaches discredit the approaches that work for me.

The flickers came back. She wouldn’t dance with him. She preened. She preened some more, her beak plunging into her rump feathers and dragging along the entire length of her tail feathers. He watched her. She ate the peanut bark I’d spread in a knot on the sweetgum’s trunk. He flew to a lower branch to be closer to her. She continued eating while he landed on the ground and ate what had fallen from her beak, which I found at once sweet and miserable.

I value what I perceive. I value what I have learned. I value what I have overcome. I value my strength.

Squirrels mated in a branch above the flickers. European starlings mobbed the peanut bark. From the ground, the flickers watched the intruders squabble for a few minutes before flying into the silver maple. Fifteen Canada geese flew by. A blue jay sounded the alarm call. Others joined in. I couldn’t see the threat, but most of the birds in the yard cleared out. The jays quieted down, though they continued to patrol the yard. Seven more geese flew by.

Locations — in my backyard, at Lake Olathe, at Sprint Wetlands, at Leawood City Park, and driving to and from these locations.

1. Seen at my home
2. Seen at Lake Olathe
3. Seen at Sprint Wetlands
4. Seen at Leawood City Park
5. Seen at Meadowbrook Park
6. Seen while driving

Twitter: Light-Catchers

A staircase of shelf fungus scales the side of a hawthorn tree.

All around me, the ground undulates. Robins shovel leaves in search of food. “Do what you want to do” floats into my mind as clear as birdsong.

A Carolina wren sings a medley that includes the song my wren at home sings. B-flat followed by G-flat, repeated five times.

A female hooded merganser sleeps on a sheet of ice, her mate nowhere in sight. Upstream, a great blue heron squats low in the water, drenching its chest.

I like talking with the old men who don’t seem to have anyone.

Hawthorn tree: Your fungus is soft, your spikes hard. This is life.

At home, I get out my piccolo and play along with the birds.

A child screams like a hawk — or maybe a hawk screams like a child.

Frozen water droplets hang from the branches like thousands of crystal balls. Light-catchers, these drops tell our future.

Trees shred the wind. My dog sleeps.

I feel like the dark-eyed junco in my yard who has the excreta of another bird stuck to its tail.

Language is in my fingers these days, not my mouth.

I am ill and screaming like a starling.

Even the noisy house sparrow calls me back to the present.

My thoughts yellow like old paper.

Winter: Snow remains in the shadow my house casts.

Life: looking down to see the remains of a dead bird at your feet.

Bare tree limbs speak to each other in Morse code.

Starlings pull up the garland of the sky and hang it on trees. — Jeff Schwaner

Life is better since I started pointing my camera away from me. By camera, I mean mind.

Bird Roll Call: January 18, 2018

  • American crow (flying one block over)
  • American goldfinch
  • American robin
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Canada goose (overhead)
  • Carolina wren
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Ring-billed gull
  • White-throated sparrow

I woke to see that the northern flicker had learned how to stand on my feeder’s raccoon baffle and flick his long tongue into the ports to retrieve seeds. Once he grew bored of that activity and moved on, I turned my attention to the ground, where several types of birds were eating the seed the flicker had spilled. I was able to identify a first-winter white-throated sparrow mingling with the group. I am learning how to see and interpret important markings on birds that help with identification. In the case of this particular bird, these markings include slightly streaked flanks and a smudged central breast spot, as compared with the clean gray breast of the adult. (It helped that there was an adult present for comparison.)

The Carolina wren appeared for a breakfast of plain suet. I was hoping he’d sing after he ate. He didn’t disappoint. At the front of the house, he launched into a three-note tune that I haven’t yet documented. The first note was an A-flat, and the final was a G-natural. The middle note fell between the half step. He repeated the notes three or four times for the most part before pausing and then beginning a new set. When he first started singing, I thought I detected an additional element between sets — a refrain of two buzzed notes with the same pitch. As he went on, the buzzing disappeared and he stuck with the main song. I was running to the front of the house at the time in order to hear him better, so I wasn’t able to document the pitch of the buzzed notes.

All morning, the sky was streaked with European starlings flying west. By 10 a.m., the ground rippled with the shadows of Canada geese. A little later, gulls flew over in the opposite direction. I thought of clouds passing by on warm summer days, but this was not that. This was winter, through and through.

Late morning, the Cooper’s hawk flew into my neighbor’s yard in pursuit of something it saw from the sky. She missed whatever she was after and flew to a nearby tree before flying up and over my house.

I saw a red-tailed hawk fly over the house twice today, or perhaps I saw two red-tailed hawks fly over once each. As of yesterday, I know I have two in the immediate area.

Watching these birds is like flipping through an old illustrated book, one that’s yellowed with time and holds great mystery.

Location — in my backyard.

Bird Roll Call: January 11, 2018

  • American goldfinch
  • Black-capped chickadee
  • Blue jay
  • Carolina wren
  • Dark-eyed junco
  • Downy woodpecker
  • European starling
  • House finch
  • House sparrow
  • Mourning dove
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern flicker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Ring-billed gull
  • White-throated sparrow

I woke to church bells. It was cold and growing colder. Over the course of the day, water turned into ice. Frozen droplets hung from the silver maple’s scaled bark and clung to every branch. They looked like one thousand crystal balls portending one thousand potential futures. Pellets of ice fell from the sky like flour being shaken through a sieve.

The ice amplified noise from adjacent streets. Roads cracked and howled as traffic passed. Eventually, the wind kicked up and did its own share of howling.

Early in the day, the dark-eyed juncos’ tails were splayed, gray and white fans half folded, half spread. Perhaps their feathers froze in these positions overnight and needed time to thaw.

A wet cardinal flew near my cracked window. His wings sounded like the pages of a flipbook being thumbed.

The birds seemed panicked, frenzied. Yesterday’s animato had given way to today’s agitato. There were skirmishes at the window feeder all day. The northern flicker devoured the suet he rarely touches, the red patch on the back of his head water-tousled. His pecking on the suet cake sounded like someone hammering numbers into a license plate. A few feet away, the red-bellied woodpecker’s drumming on the silver maple sounded like a tin sign being tapped with a penny nail.

Gulls flew over, paper cutouts on a paper-white sky. A male northern cardinal used a teal Adirondack chair for cover.

European starlings acted lost, dejected. They wanted to eat the suet, but the northern flicker wouldn’t let them. He would bite their legs and pin them to the ground when they approached. They wandered through a plate of seed I’d left on the patio, uninterested, before clomping around in the vinca below the suet feeder, their heads pulled tight against their bodies. One let out a half-hearted “tee-ka-tuh-dee, tuh-dee-doh” before taking off for the back fence. Was it a complaint? A protest? The bird equivalent of cursing?

The red-bellied woodpecker flew off in the erratic path of a pilot who doesn’t trust his own instruments. With a flash of his gold-leaf undersides, the northern flicker flew up and over the patio roof. A single American goldfinch remained perched on the patio’ nyjer feeder.

With the northern flicker gone, a starling went for the suet. Then another and another. I let them.

Location — in my backyard.

Essays: Baltic Amber

She tells me her name. It’s a faux portmanteau of candle and mandolin. She uses her digital SLR to show me a bufflehead, a common goldeneye, and a scaup. We don’t know one another, but we are the only two people standing on top of Clinton Dam which, at eight hundred seventy-five feet, towers over Clinton Lake. We are here to watch waterfowl. That’s as good a formula for a fast acquaintanceship as any. Bird lovers talk to one another. We’re an endogenous group with overlapping interests that include conservation, education, outdoorsmanship, and a good-hearted love of birds (with a bit of competition thrown into the mix). I’ve seen folks pull up beside one another in popular birding areas to share information on what birds are present and where they are located. “Seen anything interesting” is a common refrain. That’s exactly what the woman on the dam said to me before introducing herself.

It’s supposed to be in the forties, but it isn’t. At this height, the wind cuts right through my layers. It might as well be in the low teens. I don’t feel like a warm-blooded creature. This is how the stones on the side of the dam must feel, losing all their heat to the frigid air and thereby becoming the essence of frigidity. I jump up and down to stay warm. It’s a futile endeavor. My body heat flows into the surrounding air.

Lake Clinton was built under the Flood Control Act of 1962 by damming the Wakarusa River. Funds were allocated the year I was born, just one state to the south, where we’d had a recreational reservoir since 1944. My family adored that bloated watering hole, whose creation necessitated the flooding of four towns. Artifacts from those engorged ghost towns still sit at the bottom of the lake, including marble tombstones that emerged a few years ago during a drought. The creation of Lake Clinton required destruction as well. Ten communities were wiped out with the lake’s development, as well as rich histories, such as underground railroad sites. The Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum now operates out of an old milk shed that was once part of Bloomington, one of the towns washed away when the lake was filled. The historic house the shed belonged to was razed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 1981 after agreeing to renovate it.

It’s only my third trip here. I made the most recent one yesterday with my partner. Somehow, we managed to miss the turnout on the dam, which is one of the lake’s best spots for watching birds. When I got home, I realized our mistake and decided to come back out on my own. Birding is different alone. There’s something both calming and unsettling about looking for birds without a partner. There’s a kind of intimacy in finding a bird and sharing that experience with the person you love. It’s nice to run into other bird lovers, in part because they are so enthusiastic and in part because it takes the edge off the loneliness that can accompany solo birding. But it’s not the same as being out with my partner. I have more time to think, for one thing, which is both good and bad, depending on the thought.

Off to the right, the woman and I see two American white pelicans. To the left, a great blue heron flies in and lands on the rocky shore. The heron was here yesterday, too. The woman and I talk about how surprising it is to see a heron in such cold weather. My worry is evident in my voice, which cracks from more than the cold. I’m concerned that our unusually warm weather has affected migration timing and that many birds, not just this heron, are now in danger. In a matter of days, the temperature has plunged from the forties and fifties to the single digits, with subzero temperatures on the way. The woman and I talk about how cold we are before drifting back to our respective cars and cranking the heat. She drives away. I am on my own now, again.

I make my way up and over the lake to an area called Bloomington West. It takes longer than I expect. “Alone, alone, alone.” The word pecks at the deadwood in my head. I realize this is the first time I’ve done anything on my own since I experienced a period of great trauma in 2015. After that year, I retreated into what was safe and comfortable — into myself, mostly, and away from other people. I didn’t know a pair of binoculars would send me back out into the world — alone, alone — no less. This open-ended time is terrifying on some levels but also healing. I felt like the earth is putting me back together bone by bone, like a someone preparing a bird skeleton for display at a local nature center.

On the road, a man approaches from behind, fast. I’m going the speed limit, but he wants me to drive faster. Now I am not alone, and I want alone to return. Alone suddenly feels like an empty nest, safe and solitudinous. I worry about being out here at the lake and meandering through the rural areas that surround it. How easy it would be for someone to mess with a woman, with me. I feel old traumas speaking through my body, marks left by the men who have harmed me. Some experts call what I am experiencing the sequelae of trauma. Others call it post-traumatic stress disorder. The language I use is different. My trauma is subjective, not objective. It is visceral, not clinical. Psychologists don’t capture my experience any better than the authors of the DSM. I think about the eyes of the Cooper’s hawk who hunts behind my yard. They are the color of Baltic amber. I imagine my body is made of amber that, over time, has grown around what it has encountered, each occlusion an infraction — something forced, something taken, something threatened, something denied. The body is still there but so is what the body has been through, what it remembers. I have hardened around these memories.

I turn on a street with a funny name: E 251st Diagonal Road. The man is still behind me. I turn again, onto a road that will take me to the shore. The man keeps going straight. “Alone,” I exhale, as if the word were a mantra. I pass a newly tilled field and scare up countless meadowlarks and European starlings. They skim the field’s teased surface. I continue all the way to the lake, past a sign that reads “Road ends in water.” Perfect. A road to no-road feels existential in this moment. At the water’s edge, there’s another sign. This one says parking is not allowed at any time. I see nobody, anywhere. There aren’t even boats on the parts of the lake that haven’t frozen over. I park the car and step onto a wooden loading dock. Its yellow poles are as bright as a red-shouldered hawk’s legs and feet. The rest of the scenery is hazy, as if someone is holding a sheet of onion skin paper between me and the world. At first, I hear nothing. Then, there is noise everywhere — around me, beneath me, near, far. All at once, it sounds like singing and cracking and heavenly voices mixed with ghostly nightmare cries. My heart feels like a heron slipping on a frozen marsh until I place the sounds. It’s the water freezing, the everywhere sound of solidification. Imaging one thousand people bending saws and one hundred sticks cracking all at once. This is what the Sirens must have sounded like. Enchanted to the point of being driven mad, those poor sailors never stood a chance.

Now that I understand what I am hearing, the terror turns to strange beauty. This unsettling and unexpected improvisation has reduced my lexicon to a single word: “Wow.” I say it over and over. I look up from the ice to take in this abandoned corner of the freezing lake and see a tree full of bald eagles. I say wow again. And again. One eagle flies away. Another flies in. I see one in another tree. I see one on the ice. Wow. Part of me wishes my partner was here. Part of me wishes the woman I’d met on the dam was here. I know she would love this. But those parts are easily subverted. In truth, I want this experience all to myself, and I have it all to myself. The eagles. The lake. The haunting ice. And me.

I drive by Bloomington East, past the closed Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum, before heading out the way I came in. I stop the car in front of the field where I saw the meadowlarks and schlep into the freshly turned soil, aware that I am trespassing. I watch groups of starlings and meadowlarks skim the surface of the land, first left, then right. Through the binoculars, the birds don’t look real. The starlings are on one plane and the meadowlarks on another, like two paintings on separate sheets of glass with a space between them. I feel like I’m looking at an image in a View-Master. Not 3D, not really. Not the world the way the human eye and mind see and understand it. The binoculars create a beautiful distortion that turns the world into a piece of modern art.

I turn to walk back to the road. I think I see a party limo, but there’s a casket in the back. It’s a white hearse with a dancing neon license plate cover. A trail of cars follows. Ordinary cars. Nothing festive about them. They are the kinds of cars people in rural areas drive, ones that sit high off the ground, get around in all types of terrain and weather, and are always dirty. The occupants of the vehicles look sad and also a little irritated about passing a stranger standing where she has no business standing. Heavy with impatience and shame, I wait in the space that separates the life in the field from the death snaking beside it. The procession passes. I get in my car.

My road does not end in water, not today. I drive back the way I came. Hawks perch in the trees and on power lines along the highway. They give way to rock pigeons, then starlings. I arrive home in time to see a white-breasted nuthatch and a Carolina wren in the yard. It gets darker. Only the northern cardinals remain. Then they leave. Darker still. I see a mourning dove on the edge of the birdbath. Then nothing.

Essays: Baubles

This time of year, American robins move in large flocks. They adorn bare trees all over our area. Last weekend, they came to our backyard in waves. Their washed-out orange underparts made it look like our sweetgum trees were covered in apricots. Stone fruit. Flesh clinging to a hard center clinging to a branch. I haven’t seen any robins for two days, but I know if I drove out to the nearest wetlands or even cruised across town, I’d see them clutching the trees, their legs like thick stems.

Robin, by John James Audubon. Image used in accordance with U.S. public domain laws.

Last week, I learned how to tell the difference between the male and female robin. Each time half a dozen or more gathered at our birdbath, I practiced my identification skills. “Male, male, male, female, male.” Now that I know what I’m looking at, the distinction is obvious. Her coloration is so much softer, especially her head, which is greige as opposed to charcoal or sable. Still, more than four decades of my life passed before I could see anything other than a generic robin — the Platonic ideal of the bird, perhaps. I was not seeing them, only some loosely held idea of them that came to feel like seeing.

Robin. It’s a soft word, like a wool sweater on a cold night. A comfortable word for a bird who brought me comfort as a child. The muted browns. The rich oranges. These birds carried fall’s earthy color palette on their bodies along with the promise of all that fall is after the terrible brutality of a hot, dry summer — one in which emotions routinely got out of hand as oppressive days ground into stifling nights. Nothing mixed well with the heat: not exertion, not rest, not that last glass of vodka, not my parents’ dealings with one another or with me.

My mother loved robins and would shrill “Robin! Robin!” whenever she saw one at the birdbath. Not all birds received such a ceremonious reception. The robin was on my mother’s bird-celebrity shortlist, along with the northern cardinal and, in the number one spot, the scissor-tailed flycatcher, who was our state bird. I’m not sure how any birds made their way to that birdbath, let alone the ones my mother loved most. My father had bulldozed the backyard and veneered the soil with concrete. Like frosting, he skimmed the concrete with a mixture of pebbles and epoxy. He left two trees standing — a magnolia and a sweetgum. The latter died, most likely from the abuse of having its surface roots constricted. My mother put a birdbath where the sweetgum had been. Like its surroundings, the bath was made of concrete. She placed rust-colored lava rocks on the circle of exposed earth that had surrounded the tree. The birdbath rose from the rocks like a whimsical headstone. Bird sightings were few and far between, but now and again a desperate winged creature would traverse the concrete jungle for a few sips of water and a bath on a feverous day.

That was my introduction to birds. Ultimately, they were baubles to my mother, as I was her bauble. She never moved beyond her initial excitement about seeing birds to actually watching them. Like everything, they were accessories. Bird. Child. Earrings. A pair of strappy sandals into which she wedged her tumid feet. Each played the same role and had the same status. Birds were something to chirpily declare having seen — “I saw a cardinal today!” — as if, as an extension of herself, the birds made her more valuable than she was on her own. They weren’t something to care for, to learn about, to appreciate, to protect. They certainly weren’t something to be with or to go out of one’s way for. My mother never went into the woods or fields or grasslands looking for birds, leaving her own world in order to get a glimpse of theirs. With the exception of my father, everything that came and went in her life did so on her terms. She was a planet. Everything else was a celestial object pulled for a time into her orbit. So I grew up with vague impressions of a few birds, namely my mother’s favorites.

What my father contributed to my understanding of birds amounted to coddling purple martins while attempting to starve European starlings. The martins got a fancy hotel in the sky, as blinding in the sun as the crest of a wave on a bright day. Below, he set a trap for the starlings: a wire cage that allowed them to enter but not exit. The device was not unlike the hanging cages used in Europe during the medieval period. I ended the torture the day after my father caught his first starling. I couldn’t bear witness to that barbaric form of execution and not do something. I found an older child in the neighborhood who was able to reach the trap and convinced her to open it. I knew I’d pay later. I didn’t care. The bird flew off, and that meant everything to me. My father stopped putting the purple martin house up after that. Its green and white facade languished in the back corner of our property until he died, and for two decades thereafter. My mother hated it but couldn’t bring herself to remove it. Unlike the starling he tried to starve, my father died quickly. Heart attack. Two words like stones that I didn’t know until I knew them and he was gone, a bird set free from a trap.

We had two juvenile robins in our yard this summer. That was before I was serious about watching birds. These were just two of the animals we inherited when we purchased our house in June. They were adorable in the way baby birds always seem to be. They don’t know quite what to make of the world or their place in it. I can’t imagine experiencing and processing so much so quickly. Every day for them is life and death, not that they think about it in those terms. But something in them knows already, if “knows” is the right word, to be on alert. If they used language, verbs like “fly,” “dart,” and “take cover” would be central to their vocabulary. They would be governed by a lexicon of imperatives.

It’s hard to look at birds and not think about the trauma I’ve experienced and the ways it’s shaped me. My working vocabulary is not unlike the one I’ve imposed on them. I, too, dart and take cover when I sense danger, even when no danger is present. Perhaps this is why I feel so protective of birds, why I whisper prayers for them under my breath or plead with them to hang in there. “Please make it through the day,” I would say to the juvenile robins. “Just try.” Then I would look for them the next day and, seeing them, smile.

My relationship with the young robins was quieter and more intimate than the one I have with the flocks who’ve visited the yard recently. Those adults have come by the dozens for the sole purpose of drinking water then moving on. With each wave, a handful of starlings also arrived. They seemed to be shadowing the robins, perhaps to take advantage of their ability to find resources. Between the robins and the starlings, the whole yard was mobbed. It looked like a pointillist painting, each bird a dab of black or brown ink. My partner was intimidated by the crowd. I’m not sure the smaller birds appreciated it, either.

Birds are complicated. They aren’t the simplistic trinkets my mother took them for. What I know about them is changing with each day, each encounter. I’ve learned that they don’t sound the same from place to place. The dark-eyed juncos use calls in the country that they don’t use in my backyard. They don’t act the same, either. Within a species, some birds are bolder than others. Some appear to be teachers while others are more apt to watch and learn. Some take the opportunity to feed while others are sleeping. Some experiment while others go by the books. Complexity exists at the group level as well. Case in point: The sparrows are fighting right next to me at the window feeder. Hierarchy is being established and defended. One’s place in the hierarchy can mean the difference between surviving the winter and succumbing to its cruelties. As I watched the flocks of robins who swarmed my yard, I realized there were more social dynamics among them than I would ever understand. My knowledge of them is akin to looking into a room through a cracked door. I see some of the details, but I have no idea what the room really looks like.

My relationship with birds is growing more complicated. I thought I’d signed up for learning their names and how to identify them. But now I’m involved. I’m moving away from my mother’s “Robin! Robin!” approach and into something else. “Bird” is coming to mean something richer, stranger and more mysterious than it ever did when I was a child staring at a cement birdbath girdled by a cement lawn, a single bird writhing in the shallow water — though now that I think about it, the birds I watched as a child were just as rich, strange and mysterious as any. Fancy that.

Twitter: Brambled

You do your thing. I’ll watch birds.

Life is like being held hostage by someone I don’t want to leave.

but though I have looked everywhere, / I can find nothing / to give myself to: / everything is / magnificent with existence — A. R. Ammons

I will give you four names because you change with each season.

Platinum sky. Church bells. A robin reflected in the birdbath.

And if you are not a bird, then beware of coming to rest above an abyss. ― Friedrich Nietzsche

I’m trying to forget people.

My poems are as brambled as my mind.

I avoid showing you the things I love because I am afraid you will not love them.

We rake leaves while leaves fall.

A bald eagle flew right over my head today.

American tree sparrows look like my grandmother’s embroidery.

Windy day. An American kestrel clutches the top of a purple martin house.

Four drops of oil glint at the top of an oak tree. The European starlings have arrived.

Sweet wren. You only come out when I’m standing near the feeder. I’m beginning to think you like my company.

We followed a murmuration of starlings along a country road. It pulsed open and closed — a world expanding and collapsing.

Bagging leaves, we make way for winter.

We’ve had our driest fall in fifteen years, which has affected our wetlands. It’s raining this morning. I’m off to kiss the raindrops.

Red-bellied woodpecker: In this light, you are wearing a faded clown costume.

Northern flicker: Your spotted belly mirrors the sweetgum seed pods dangling behind you.

When I’m still, the birds stop seeing me.

The rain was light and inconsequential. Clay hardens beneath my feet.

Twitter: Human Contact

I saw a sign that read, “Ring Bell for Human Contact.” I did not ring the bell.

When shade turns to sun, dark-eyed juncos are the first to emerge from the brush.

After several dark days, the sun coming through this window might as well be a god.

When I was filling the birdbath, a blue jay did his best impression of a red-tailed hawk. I think he wanted to bathe all by himself.

The male cardinal is a grace note in the bare rose of Sharon.

A highway runs through one of our wetland areas. Shame on us.

A shadow crosses the highway. Above, a red-tailed hawk.

You know you’re going to die, and you live anyway. That’s how it is.

I have edited the landscape to include more detritus.

The last leaves on the crabapple tree: ornaments.

I only answered the door because I thought you were a bird.

Unordered list: waxing crescent moon, bare maple tree, dull opal sky.

The remaining leaves sound like dry grasses.

Black Friday. I can’t get to the wetlands fast enough.

The snow geese fly in the shape of a swallow.

Scatter my ashes in the prairie cordgrass.

Four red-tailed hawks soar above our subdivision.

Starlings carry the shape of power lines into the air.

Death won’t happen to me. I won’t be there. – Jose Faus

Twitter: Secretive Nature

I want to upcycle Congress into an old-growth forest.

My bird name would be the beaver-toothed ruminator.

I’m pretty sure the geese don’t call this place Kansas.

Starlings perch on power lines above the trainyard.

I just read about a type of sparrow that has a “secretive nature.” Intriguing.

One squirrel munches on an acorn while the others kuk and quaa over a Cooper’s hawk.

The great horned owl is out hunting on our street today. Between him and the Cooper’s hawk, the crows and blue jays are raising a racket.

Today, I saw the sparrow described as having a “secretive nature.” What a beauty.

The noisy rooks pass over, and you may / Pace undiverted through the netted light / As silent as a thrush with work to do — John Hewitt

I’m just here for the beauty.

No killdeer across the street. For now, the new development has won.

The recycling truck’s brakes sing like a forlorn bird.

One of the functions of language is to facilitate the creation of memories. Once we have memory, we have a past and a presumed future.

Language is not how we experience the world. It’s how we editorialize about our experiences.

As soon as I say “hawk,” I am no longer experiencing the hawk.

There’s a lot of goose poo on my shoe. I don’t know what to do.

Yesterday, I followed a kestrel through a small field.

Talk about theories all you like, but when it rains, go outside.

In place of leaves, red-winged blackbirds.

The pied-billed grebe’s white stomach shimmers like an ostrich egg.

Poetry: Glass

I wrote the poem after realizing I’d ignored the starlings all season. I imagined my way into their lives as a way of talking about trauma and identity.


Today I saw a starling try to fly
through a closed window as if the pane

were nothing but air, no obstacle at all.
You feel like that, too, sometimes,

as do I, traumas lining your pockets
and you wondering at the weight you bear,

your desire to find a body of water
deep enough to cover you like a sheet

of glass. I’ve stood on that shore,
or should I say sore, open wound.

Maybe I should say wound, the verb,
as in how many years have we wound

and unwound like a thousand pulsating
variable stars, held each trauma-stone

to the light and tried to feed it little snails,
as if we could nourish the pain away

or nurture it into something that might walk
beside us rather than having to always

be carried or dragged? We are turning rocks
into sky, you and I, our feathers oiled,

our backs to the sun. We are songbirds.
Everyone seems to forget that.