Saturday, July 22, 2006


Some of the bloggers whom I most enjoy have been doing a “ten bird meme,” which means that they list and describe the ten “best” of the birds they know or have spotted in the bird watcher manner. Querencia ( says, “Pluvialis, Chas, and Rebecca all continue the Ten Bird Meme. We (including Darren and Carel as well) are considering an e- book at very least-- stand by!” Pluvialis is a truly extraordinary English ornithologist/author. Try July 6 (“Smeleken” a small hawk) or June 29 (“The Southern Bald Ibis”). Be grateful you can bring up photos and writing this vivid for FREE!! Steve and Libby Bodio hunt with hawks and keep them in the house.

My meme will not make the book. In my world I might see a little dark bird that my small night-active cat has caught, killed and put in the cat food dishes, since the other big fat cat and I have slept improvidently through the dawn hours when things are best. I ought to get out a bird identification book and see what the sad little victim is, but I’m so embarrassed, sorry and disgusted with the cat for being its own natural self that I slip the little bird into the trash quickly and try not to think about it.

There’s another bird that I hear early in the morning: a pheasant that makes a sound like a New Year’s party noise-maker -- a cranking squawk, not pleasant. I never see what I assume is a China rooster. The sound is pretty unmistakable. I think he lives on the airport grass, alongside the little covey of quail that I sometimes flush there. This village is surrounded by wheat fields and the birds are likely to slip around in stalks or stubble there as well.

So that’s three birds.

My big black cottonwood tree (I THINK that’s what it is -- Rex Rieke told me when he was here, but I didn’t write it down) was absolutely dripping with cotton and seeds this spring because of the extra rain, and that attracted all sorts of birds. I sit to read where I can watch this tree, a panopticon of small events among the leaves, and one day could NOT read because there were three kinds of singing finches out there cavorting in the cotton and seeds: the little brown ones, yellow ones like canaries, and bright red ones. Normally there’s a neat little sharp-beaked bird that goes up and down the trunk picking out bugs of some kind. It’s as likely to be upside down as rightside up and it travels on the vertical trunk more than the horizontal branches.

The two cats like to get up there and cavort, too, but not as much as they did when they were adolescent. When they first came, I had to stop feeding birds so I wouldn’t be inviting them into a death trap. So what’s that? Seven, not counting cats? (I don’t think there are catbirds around here.)

One of my great joys in life is meadowlark song and one of the good things about this village is that there are big tracts of lots that were developed but unsold, so that they’ve been what my next door neighbor calls “prairie” for a long time. The meadowlarks sing there, close enough to hear through the day.

That makes eight. My mother had a thing about mourning doves, which she associated with an unhappy and unfortunate move in her childhood. The family, for health reasons, left a pleasant house in Washington state when she was about ten and moved into a much more modest house near Roseburg, Oregon. It was in a narrow valley, short on fertility, sunlight and water -- overpopulated with mourning doves. She grieved along with them. There are many of them here, living in my big evergreen trees. They seem to have no relationship at all with the many rock doves -- which we know as city pigeons -- who roost on the grain bins that are clustered in rows on village lots along the railroad.

That’s ten, but I’ll tell you about my most embarrassing bird if you promise not to hold it against me. When I’d only been here a month, I was reading in my new front room -- still fairly empty and without curtains -- when shadows kept crossing my pages. They were so regular and speedy that I went outdoors to see what was making them. Seagulls, or some birds LIKE seagulls, were gyring around the village at the tops of the trees, evidently chasing some kind of insect hatch. But they had NO BEAKS. At least I couldn’t see any. I don’t have binocs. I stood out there peering at them so intently that they got curious about me in turn, and swam by lower, turning their heads to stare at me. No beaks.

I looked in my bird books for beakless gulls. No such thing. I called a bird expert and asked her about this amazing phenomenon. She was stumped and then she became very kind and said she had to get off the line. Clearly, she thought she was talking to a crazy person.

Finally, I did figure out that the beaks simply happened to be the same value as the sky -- they weren’t quite a saturated enough yellow to contrast with the pale blue sky. The beaks just looked missing. It was an optical illusion. I’ll get a short story out of it some day. Sort of like Tennessee Williams’ bird that had no feet or legs because it never landed -- just sailed the skies. There are seabirds who are almost like that -- albatrosses and so on. But they have to land long enough to hatch eggs or there wouldn’t be any more of them.

I used to have a supervising minister who talked all the time about “stormy petrels” (meaning slightly insane people who made trouble) and a roommate who talked all the time about the “rara avis,” meaning the unique genius. I think I will explain to the cats that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs and therefore all have beaks... and should be respected. They will look at me kindly and make excuses to leave.

1 comment:

Steve Bodio said...

Your sharp- beaked birds are nuthatches I think-- and your writing is as entertaining as anyone's
is, which is more the point!