Managing the Cowbird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
              –Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
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The patio at my parents’ house in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, is one of my favorite places to be. From the front, their house is unremarkable – a neat, cared-for home in a neighborhood of similar (if less-cared-for) homes, in a city in a desert where a three-year drought has turned the entire place into a matchstick waiting to be struck.

Except this back yard.

In the mornings, we get up at 6:30 a.m. and, when it isn’t too windy, bring our coffee onto the patio. The early morning sunshine is warm, and the day’s watering begins almost immediately. This attention to watering is what has helped my folks create an oasis of green in their little postage-stamp sized piece of the desert. I sip my coffee and marvel at the ordered beauty of this yard and patio.

At some point, Dad gets up and tends to the birds. Every day, he fills the feeder next to the bird bath with seed. Almost as soon as he walks away, the birds swoop in. They eat, occasionally they squabble. They take a quick dip in the bath. If the hummingbird feeders are nearing empty, Mom has already boiled the water for the preparation of sugared water that fills them. Soon, the tiny thrumming bodies are zooming around our heads. All kinds of birds come to this yard – finches, doves, robins, thrushes, jays. Humming birds, ruby throated and ferrous. One morning, Mom pointed to the back wall (which is just above waist height) and there was a covey of wild quail, notoriously shy of humans, nervously deciding whether to get any closer to the feeding frenzy.

Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows that, when I’m in New Mexico, my camera is typically attached to my hand. But these morning bird-watching sessions, though offering a great opportunity to practice, have remained unphotographed. My camera, and often also my cell phone, remain inside. I have wanted to keep this time as peaceful as possible, to be fully in it as opposed to having the experience mediated by a camera lens.

The past few mornings, especially, I’ve welcomed this coffee and bird time. It has come at the end of nightmare-filled nights. The dreams have been filled with bugs, betrayals and residual stressors from a job I no longer have. It has occurred to me that my waking self has been avoiding thinking about the enormity of the tasks waiting for me at the end of this New Mexico interlude, though my sleeping self is clearly in touch with that reality. Taken as a whole, the process of starting over feels overwhelming, regardless of the adventure and excitement inherent in such a move. It will be a lot of work to find a job, to move into a place and settle in there. It will take time to establish new relationships and renew old ones. It has been so long, do I even remember how to do any of these things?

When things feel overwhelming or tasks feel insurmountable, there is a tendency to experience a certain paralysis. Not that the will stops being willing, just that the brain stops being able to process it all. Just that the heart quakes a little with fear that you might not have within you whatever it will take. This fear can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from tears “for no reason” to heart palpitations to nightmares like mine. The first step in mitigating the effects of feeling overwhelmed has always been, for me, recognizing it for what it is. The second is learning to break it down into smaller pieces or component parts and creating a plan to tackle those pieces one at a time. This is one situation in which seeing the trees may be more important than seeing the forest – forests are vast, while trees are familiar and huggable (i.e. we can get our arms around them). An important note about creating a plan – for me, having a plan is key. However, sticking to that plan is not – which is a good thing when the way forward is riddled with unknowns. I’m usually pretty flexible and adaptable; I can adjust in mid-stream.

Which brings me back to the birds in my parents’ yard. Some come every day, expecting to be fed. Others happen upon the feast and gladly partake. All of them have to take what comes – whether that is delicious feed or an attack from larger, predatory birds who swoop in and cause the avian crowd to scatter. Each morning on the patio, I watch these creatures respond to what they find, and I am fascinated. Sometimes, the variety of birds that happily co-feed is surprising. Sometimes, the larger birds bully the smaller ones – a few of whom give up right away and fly off looking for a more peaceful breakfast venue. But others are more tenacious. They dart away then back quickly, avoiding the bully skillfully, if cautiously. Some birds approach the food tentatively, perching on the edge of the birdbath to take a look. Maybe I am anthropomorphizing, but it sure looks like joy when they discover the bird bath has water in it, and shower their wings with cool droplets tossed from their beaks.

The Irish writer, Robert Lynd, said “In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.” Morning coffee on my parents’ patio isn’t silent, but it does offer a pause before the start of the day’s activities for us humans, to enter briefly into that world the birds inhabit. It is impossible not to relax and let the lingering effects of nightmares dissipate in that world. Birds definitely live in the “now”, and when you watch them, you do too. That is the gift “Dad’s birds” offer each morning.

The birds offer a lesson, as well as a gift. Their lesson is beautifully captured in this quote from J.M. Barrie, creator of the magical Peter Pan: “The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” The future holds what it holds, regardless of your plans, they tell me. This moment holds seed and water and sunshine – make the most of it. Tomorrow, or the next day, there may be a brown-headed cowbird bogarting the seed. You’ll manage the cowbird when it happens: have a little faith, and take things as they come.

The Fall of A Sparrow

Three weekends ago, my friend Mike came into my house via the side door saying, “Did you know you have a bird’s nest above this door?” I said that it had been there and empty since I moved in. He said, “Well, it’s not empty now, I just scared a little bird out of it.” And sure enough, when I asked him to check, there were eggs in the nest. We were worried the smell of his fingers touching the eggs might keep the mother away, but soon she was happily sitting the nest, keeping her eggs warm. On Sunday, after Mike left to return to Minneapolis, I pulled out a step stool and snapped the shot, above, of the little speckled eggs.

That weekend, we were marvelling at the early spring that had arrived in the midwest. We made a point to start using the front door, in order to cause less disturbance to the little bird family nesting in the side awning. And we made friends with the neighbor’s cats, who do love to sun on my porch and rest in the shade beneath my front bushes. One beautiful tiger cat was especially friendly, lying at our feet and stretching to expose his belly to be scratched.

Every day I’ve watched the progress of life in the little nest. I haven’t wanted to get too close, since any movement at the side of the house sent the mama bird flying away to distract attention from the nest. I’ve exclusively used the front door, even when arriving home after dark, fumbling with my key and crossing the pitch black living room to find a light switch. Finally, last night, I noticed a change. Tiny movements in the nest, tiny chirps – the little chicklets had hatched. I plan to take the afternoon off work tomorrow, and thought it might be a good time to attempt a photo of the hatchlings to go with the one, above, of the eggs.

This morning, I woke and went to the gym for my TRX class. It was a hard class, and I returned home physically wrung out. I turned on the tea kettle to boil water for my morning coffee, and sat down at my computer to put the finishing touches on today’s blog entry. Suddenly, there was a loud noise at the side of the house, much like someone attempting to break down the side door. My heart leapt into action, hammering hard and fast in a fear response. I ran to the side door, thinking that whomever was trying to break into my house might go away if they realized I was still inside.

The sight that greeted me was not what I expected. The tiger cat looked up at me from a crouched position, obviously startled in the middle of something. And that’s when I thought of the nest. Opening the screen door, I was greeted by the sight of five little birdlings, gasping their final breaths on the cement at my feet, the nest that had sheltered them hanging like a straw beard from the awning above them.

Death took all but one within seconds of their fall. The last and largest of the hatchlings lived for maybe two minutes. There was absolutely nothing I could do, except witness the little thing’s passing.

For some reason, I really wanted those little birdlets to live. I’ve never watched a nest before, never been so engaged before in this process, not even as a child. I wondered how I would be able to bring myself to dispose of their little bodies. Luckily, I was spared that task by the arrival of Tom, the facilities groundskeeper who tends my lawn. He is such a kind-hearted man that though it saddened him, too, he agreed to do the grisly clean up.

But even in my sadness, I can’t hold it against the tiger cat. He was just being his cat self. Next time I see him, I’ll reach down and rub his belly the way he likes me to. And I’ll be reminded that sometimes our role in the day is to be a witness to this amazing world and to the life that inhabits it. We get so caught up in being actors in our lives, deciding and speaking and moving. Sometimes simply, silently, witnessing is necessary, too. Necessary for us and for our world.