Bird of the Year
Where are the birds? With the first blustery snowstorm that first week of December, I noticed the birds have disappeared. I mean our usual winter birds, the ever present sparrows pecking through the brittle grass in the yard, the mourning doves lined up in review across the roofline of the bus barn, the gulls swooping above the granary. Last winter they were here. They never left town or hid out or went to stay with their favorite Aunt Mary. But where are they this year? The chickadees in the bushes? The bushes are barren. Where are the birds?
I will remember this year as the year we had a blizzard every three days. The year the thermometer never rose above zero. The year I never left the house during December and January. The year snowdrifts blocked both front and back doors. The year the birds disappeared.
A friend sent me a delightful book for Christmas, “Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds” by Linda Lynn Haupt. Birders have a curious custom, the author tells me. The first bird you see on the first day of the new year will become your theme bird for the year. I like the idea. Intrigued, I search out each window, look near and far. No birds. I have not seen a bird since November. When will I see my first bird?
Late in the morning of New Year’s Day while lugging a load of sheets to the washing machine, a flicker of movement in the barren branches of the poplar outside the laundry room window, catches my eye. I stop and stare. It is a Red-Headed Woodpecker. A clown. Is this going to be my theme bird, my shaman, my oracle? Am I stuck with a clown? Maybe I can close my eyes and pretend I didn’t see it. I don’t want this to be my Year of the Clown. I am devastated.
It is no accident that the foremost bird in the cartoon world is Woody The Woodpecker. It is easy to anthropomorphize these lovers of trees, seekers of beetles in the bark, into the jokers of the avian world. For years, in another country, I awoke, blasted bolt upright in bed, to the machine-gun concrete-buster beak of the Pileated Woodpecker plying his trade outside my bedroom window, doing his best to shred my favorite giant cedar. Yet, despite the rude awakening, I loved to watch them, to observe their antics, to watch them circle a tree, upright, barely moving their clinging feet, beaks bopping. The lush plumage of their wings shines blue-black, the white feathers pristine, topped by the incomparable red head. Beautiful, hard-headed and flexible. And they made me laugh.
But I am not sure I want this Red-Headed Woodpecker to set my theme for this year. My year. I rather wanted to set the theme myself. I had something more serious in mind. Something Noble. Something Grand. Perhaps, The Year I Make a Difference. Or, The Year of Success. Maybe, The Year I Find It. Not, The Year I am a Clown.
I close my eyes, shake my head, turn away and stuff the sheets into the washer, sprinkle soap over the load, push the button to start the water shushing into the tub. I surreptitiously peek out the window. He is still there, head-banging the frozen poplar.
I heave a sigh. I love heaving sighs. They are so dramatic. Rather like that rat-a-tat drum beat outside my laundry room.
Throughout the entire month of January I do not see another bird. I keep tabs on my red-headed guest, occasionally tossing out bread or a handful of nuts in his direction. I don’t know if he ate them.
Then one day in February a flock of mourning doves gather in my back yard. I celebrate the doves. It is still bitter cold but the ice has loosened its grip. The next day, while driving to the post office, I spot the ubiquitous gulls. In a few days the sparrows return. Soon chickadees are flittering around my sidewalk. I don’t know what they expect to find there, other than a bare landing strip between the drifts.
One day driving to Chinook I notice the eagle is back on his high perch, searching for road-kill or waiting for a field mouse to tunnel up through the snow to check the weather. The edges of the snowmelt along the highway reveal a hint of the green to come. The sprigs on the cottonwood branches show signs of swelling, pregnant with buds, not yet ready to birth leaves but getting fat. And the hawks are back, swooping the skies. Not every day, but I spot them. I see a magpie in Havre. Spring will arrive and my yard will host its familiar bird conventions.
My Red-Headed Woodpecker is still here, beating his tattoo on my backyard tree, cackling glee. I pay attention. I consider this stout little fellow. He showed up in harsh conditions. He works hard. He perseveres against the elements. He is a delight to watch. He makes me laugh. This is my bird of the year. He chose me. I hope I can live up to him.
February 17, 2009