Thumper said it best: “Bir-DUH!”
It’s an invigorating word to say, especially when you’re imitating a 1940s Disney movie.
It was my Grandad who got the whole family into birdwatching, and even after he is gone, we still have an affinity for the beautiful creatures. And the life lessons they bring are astounding.
I’ve had many interactions with birds, and, though almost always in retrospect, these experiences have shown me new perspective. I like to think that they hold their own secret power, bringing inadvertent tidings wherever they land.
Below, I have listed an account of the birds who have touched my life… because what else could a girl possibly do other than listen to the life lessons they bring?
The first house I ever lived in was a two-unit house. My parents rented out the back unit before my sister and I were born; it had its own kitchen and bathroom, and was connected to the rest of the house by a breezeway. When we showed up, we got the unit all to ourselves. It wasn’t until years after we moved that I realized how lavish our living quarters actually were (though we hardly used it to its full potential — partially due to a nightmare I had as a kid, I was always scared that a monster lived in that back kitchen, and rarely went back there).
One day, we heard a large BANG! outside, and rushed out to investigate: a robin had mistaken the glass in the breezeway windows for open air, and crashed right into it. Our dog, Max, strained on his leash several feet away, barking curiously at the stunned creature on the ground.
The bird was still alive, but didn’t seem able to fly away. She was shaking in fear — she had probably already resigned herself to her fate — and my parents and sister and I quickly went into “help mode”, relocating the robin far from Max. We got some birdseed, and my mother fed her drops of water with a straw; but she didn’t seem to want the birdseed. A little research revealed that robins don’t eat birdseed — they eat bugs and worms (and bits of apples and berries, for those interested in attracting robins to their yard). We cut some ham up into little pieces, and she seemed to be cool with that.
The entire experience lasted maybe ten minutes, and then the robin found her senses, realized her wings were still in tact, and flew away.
The details of when this incident occurred are a little blurry; for all I know, it could have been right before my parents began their long trek towards divorce. But at some point within the next couple of years, the divorce did happen, and we had to move and find a cheaper place to live.
Robins are said to be symbolic of growth, and renewal — of moving forward. Even in its helpless state, this little robin was a beacon of hope, even foreshadowing what was to come with her brief run-in: a BANG!, a moment of distress, and then she flew, and life resumed.
I lived in Los Angeles for about a year or so after college, and for a portion of that time, I worked at Pinkberry on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica. There is nothing that sums up my life in LA better than that job at Pinkberry: living in South Central LA, taking a two-hour bus to work a four- to six-hour shift at a beach-side tourist spot, then taking another two-hour bus to my apartment, where almost every night I could hear helicopters circling over my neighborhood. Ah, California dreams.
Pinkberry has a very sleek appearance, as anyone who has ever set foot in any of these establishments can vouch: our particular storefront was covered in bright white counters, with grids of large green circles (and an ironic lack of the color pink), and a front wall entirely made out of glass, including the door. That front glass called out to those walking on the Promenade: “Come on in!” it said, “You can see the deliciousness inside!”
The pigeons could also see the deliciousness inside. They would strut around the Promenade in flocks, scavenging for crumbs that would slip between children’s sticky fingers. They loved Pinkberry for this very reason, and would play a game: when a customer would enter, there was a nice gap as that damn pressurized door would slowly crawl back to its closed position. The pigeons would take advantage of this and sneak inside… although it wasn’t really sneaking, because we would watch them doing it — and they would watch us watch them doing it. Eyes of employee would lock with eyes of pigeon, and a guilty look would cross each pigeon’s face as they rushed forward, head bobbing — but guilt or not, they would make it through the doorway, and we would have to come out from around the counter and shoo them back outside.
Pigeons have always been an interesting specimen to me. They are part of the dove family, but while doves are seen as divine and pure, pigeons are seen as dirty pests. At a family reunion, the pigeon is the ostracized uncle. I may be the only one who thinks they’re adorable — I can’t help it. Those little suckers have quite the expressions on their faces, especially when they’re doing something they’re not supposed to do.
Well, one day, I locked eyes with a pigeon as it made its valiant attempt, and the pigeon messed up. It tried to make its entry just a few inches too far to the right, and smacked against the glass wall, missing the doorway completely (yes, glass is the bane of every bird’s existence).
That bird was embarrassed. It paced around outside for a moment, glancing up at me with his head held high, willing me to believe nothing had happened.
That pigeon spoke volumes to me. Pigeons are known for their stubborn streak — they will keep trying and trying, no matter what it takes, to get that one little bit of food. They have to — otherwise, they won’t survive. It’s no wonder there are so many pigeons in Los Angeles.
As for me… I held on for a long time, but even I, Queen of Stubborn Tenacity, called it quits after a while and left my paycheck-to-paycheck life. It wasn’t that I was giving up on my dream — it was that I realized that picking at scraps of that dream and getting shooed away — or smacking into an invisible glass barrier — was not actually achieving said dream. So I moved to Harrisburg, where you can grow your own dreams. Suck on that, LA.
Cardinals are plush with symbolism — many will say that seeing a cardinal after a loved one has died is a sign that your loved one has returned in spirit to watch over you.
But seeing cardinals in my grandparents’ backyard is less a sign than simply a common phenomenon. So when I visited Massachusetts after my Grandad died, I wasn’t surprised to hear my mother mention that a female cardinal had taken up residence in the outdoor shower. “I’ll see her fly in there every once in a while, and you can hear her in there, making noise,” she said. Mom’s hope was that she had made a nest.
Upon closer inspection — aka I looked down from the second floor window to see if I could get a good look at her like a nice, creepy human — I discovered that the cardinal wasn’t just hanging out in the shower, but she was chirping at her own reflection in the mirror, and flinging herself at it. Over and over and over, she would try to attack herself.
We made jokes at first about what she was doing — did she think there was a bird trapped in the mirror? Was she maybe gay, and going after her own reflection as a romantic interest? Mom finally Googled the problem, and discovered that when cardinals find a good spot for their nest, they will attack any intruders who threaten the safety of that spot. They will continue to attack, the Internet said, until the intruder leaves.
Which meant that this poor dumb bird was just going to keep attacking her reflection until the end of time.
We decided to tape some paper over the mirror so that the cardinal wouldn’t hurt herself. Honestly, though, I don’t think she came back after we put the paper up, so maybe she actually was just interested in a birdie fling, after all.
I know this sounds lame, but regardless of the intent behind her actions, I often feel like that cardinal. I know what it’s like to want something so bad that I’ll hurt myself trying to make it happen. I feel that it happens mostly in trying to protect myself. I just want that other bird to go away, so I can have some peace, but I end up causing myself pain by trying to remove it from my life. It’s a control issue; I know I have an unhealthy desire for control in my life. If I were to just let it be, I would be fine… but when you have to stare into the face of your own hang-ups every day, letting things be is not an option.
Which leads me to my next ornithological encounter:
It was raining. I began my walk to work, cowering behind the tiny, shitty umbrella that I had been stupid enough to use, when I came across a small bird standing in the middle of the sidewalk.
It was a baby bird.
Well, it was a fledgling. He had a good set of feathers, and just a little bit of leftover fluff, and he stared up at the tree he was standing under with a bewildered look on his face. He seemed to have no concept of what to do now that he had hit the ground. I stopped a few feet away from him, and, suddenly very aware that I was looking at him, the little tyke scuttled over to a trash can leaning up against the closest house.
I was not sure what to do. I didn’t know if he would be okay on his own — whether he had fallen prematurely out of the nest, or if he was ready to go and just didn’t get that he was supposed to fly away from strangers. But I was late for work, and so I vowed to come back and visit him.
After poking around on the Internet, I discovered that he was a starling. I also discovered that leaving him alone was the best thing to do — some baby birds may look “lost” but are exactly on track, or are even still being watched by their parents, and to move them would just make things worse. But I still wanted to check up on him. So, a couple of hours later, I made the trek back to his spot, and found him cowering as close to the building as he could, trying to avoid the rain. He was shivering. It was the saddest thing ever.
I noticed he had a twig wrapped around his leg, so I stooped down to pull it off. He did not like that idea, and began to run away. It was when I tried chasing after him that I heard the screeches from the tree above — Mom and Dad were definitely still watching closely.
I heaved a sigh. Okay, okay, I thought, this bird has to figure its own life out, and all I’m doing is scaring him. And if I can’t trust a wild animal to survive on its own in the wild, then who the hell do I think I am? Nonetheless, it was very hard for me to walk away.
I don’t know what happened to that little starling — when I next walked by, he was gone. I have to hope that he is doing fine. Most birds survive their thrust out into the real world, and I will have to be happy with statistics. And let’s be real, starlings are tough cookies — if anyone can survive, a starling can.
I am glad that I didn’t try to take him in. I think, at some level, that my wanting to interfere was really just a selfish desire to see something affected by my good will.
What a weird concept — that sometimes charity is not needed, and not helpful. But it’s true; if I had stuck my nose into his business, I would have made his life worse off, not better. That bird was wonderful, and adorable, and a nice little addition to a rainy day — but it had nothing to do with me. There have been many instances where I’ve pushed and pushed and made a situation worse. And however much I would like to deny this, I have to admit it’s true: life goes on even without some brave act by Sam.
The truth is, most of the time we don’t make these connections with our natural surroundings until years later, after their usefulness has become simply an afterthought. I am slowly beginning to learn — if a bird sings, hear it. There will be plenty of other birds that impart their unwitting wisdom upon me, and I only hope that I will be patient enough to listen.