Saturday, October 29, 2011

What bird are you?

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
by Dan Pancamo
via Wikimedia Commons
You can tell a lot about a person by their favorite bird. I just might start up a birders' dating agency, my algorithm centered on one question, "What is your favorite bird?" There are the bold-hearted Chickadee people, taking on all comers, big or small. The Great Egret, graceful, composed, deliberate in its actions. There are the Starlings, garrulous and social. Belligerent, possessive hummingbirds.

(Yes, I am totally anthropomorphizing. I think part of what makes birds so appealing is that they are like a canvas on which we can project human qualities, while we're simultaneously in awe of their avian, distinctly nonhuman, abilities.)

Soon after moving to Connecticut -- my first fall, colder than any winter I'd ever known -- I was living in a quaint, well-to-do New England town like a postcard that had been breathed into life. My apartment was above that of the only drug addicts in town, so there were raids and my address made it into the local paper's police blotter every second week -- but on the plus side, for a couple of weeks in fall the tree outside the living room window became like the best type of Christmas tree: one decorated with Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets.

The Ruby-crowned instantly became my favorite bird -- it was something about their incessant flitting and wing flicking and their eye ring, so much like the Silvereyes I loved when I was a child. It was something about the way they look both hearty and vulnerable.

I was sitting in the living room one day when -- thunk! -- what looked like a squash ball bounced off my second-floor window. Kids playing, I thought. But then I thought, what if it was a bird? I ran downstairs, and there was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, dead, on the ground beneath the window. I was about to walk away, feeling a little shaken, when I thought, "What if it just looks dead? Would it hurt if I at least tried to warm it up, just in case?" The wind was howling and the sun was close to setting, and if it wasn't already dead, it probably would be soon. So I bent down and picked up the stiff bird. It didn't appear to be breathing. I sat on the ground, enclosing it in both hands, and I felt scratchy and irritable and sad. There always seemed to be a truck idling loudly out front of the downstairs neighbors, and yes, there it was, churning exhaust in my direction as little baggies and cash were exchanged through the window. For some reason, that damn truck and the little baggies and the cash were what tipped me over the edge and made me feel weepy holding my window-crash victim.

And then I felt a slight movement against my palms. The bird was breathing! It began to stir, so I opened up my hands. It looked up at me; I looked down at it. A tiny, dull olive-green bird. At that time of year in Connecticut, people often walk past a whole flock working the undergrowth -- flitting from branch to branch, catching insects -- and don't even realize they are there. They're unobtrusive; they live their life on the down low. You barely see the male's ruby crown unless another bird really presses his buttons . . . and then appears flash of crimson, a tiny feather flag of agitation that pops up. That's when you know that there was something dramatic lurking beneath all along.

This bird hopped up my arm, so light I could barely feel it. It's legs were thinner than toothpicks. It sat on my shoulder for a minute to two, catching the last remaining rays of sun and gathering its wits, and then it called once in my ear -- jit jit -- and was off on the wing, back to the tree to rejoin the flock.

There was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet here,
about a millisecond before I hit the shutter -- honest.

And here.

Oh, and here.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Things I am grateful for today

  • Autumn air, which smells of sunshine and dry leaves and dreams deliciously dissolving into memory.
  • Seed pods scattered all over the sidewalk, which crunch under your every footstep and crackle in a way that makes you feel like a child again.
  • A fish crow making the weirdest mewling sound, so that I looked under a hedge for the kitten that must be there, then around the corner for the mother that must surely be pushing a baby on their afternoon walk, and then finally at the roof line above, and the crow looking down at me, making this soft, plaintive sound.
  • Three young yellow-crowned night-herons that swooped into a part of the harbor I have never seen them in before, silent and gray like stealth warplanes.
  • Funky Duck, the mind-bending hybrid of mallard and who knows what else, still bobbing around with the mallards as you did all summer, somehow fitting in with them though you are double the size and have those crazy white spectacles.
  • An osprey standing in the shallows bathing and drinking as though it were on holiday from the swooping diving flapping fish-snatching hawk life, staying there so long that I began to rehearse in my head the phone call to a wildlife rescue service about this injured, defenseless osprey stuck in Milford harbor.
  • The man at the dock who didn't make me feel like a fool when, thinking I was all alone, I laughed out loud as the osprey shook like a dog and took off, then shimmied mid-air, realizing the job of shaking off those droplets wasn't as complete as it had thought -- clumsy and awesome all at once.