Walking the sanctuary at sundown, on Whidbey Island, I spot a man quietly standing, watching the estuary. Binoculars, long-lensed camera. I whisper my way to him: “Otters?” I ask hopefully.
“No, bald eagle.” He points to the tall firs, one of them topped with the giant raptor. “Usually she hunts in the evenings.”
I immediately look bored. A bird. Ho-hum.
Which is entirely rude of me: I should be more interested in actual birds, and over the years, I’ve tried. Birding walks with friends mean, to me, walks with friends, and though I’ve delighted in going to the heronry near my house with LB, it is LB’s company that is the highlight. The herons are a raucous backdrop and I talk over their croaking.
I write this as yet another poem of mine about birds, “The Chicken Poem,” is going to press in Tahoma Literary Review’s fourth issue. True, chickens are hardly the pinnacle bird, but they are birds, and I can’t seem to stop writing about them. Birds are metaphors covered in feathers: flight, hollow bones, delicate brain cases, compactness, nesting, egg laying, both predator and prey, domesticated and wild. The words that belong only to birds: aviary, fledging, quill, talon, beak. The bird words with other meanings: down, branching, brooding, roost, stoop. Darwin’s finches, the awesomeness of terror birds, the playfulness of crows, the brilliance of ravens. Pigeons and their perseverance. Penguins and their underwater flight, their selfless parenting. Hens, pecking one of their own flock to death because of a small cut. The avian mob, the rapture of blood. Rooster fights, the men who bet on them. A mockingbird, repeating perfectly the five-part cycle of the city’s car alarms. The cuckoo, a brood parasite, laying her egg in a smaller bird’s nest, the giant cuckoo offspring outcompeting its adopted siblings for food. Triangulated hearing of the owl, one ear higher than the other. Birds eating insects, worms, carrion, seeds, fish, mammals, nectar, berries, other birds. We humans must look back more than 300 million years to find a common ancestor, and yet, the soaring in our hearts.
In print, this makes me love them. In real life, someone else can feed Polly the cracker.
I try not to examine my writing passions too closely: no spitting in the well. But every time a feather drifts onto the page, I chuckle, like I’m getting away with something. I don’t love birds, not really. I don’t want one perched on my arm, ever. But maybe it’s this very distance, my shoulder shrugging “meh,” that allows me to write about difficult things. I’ve used birds to write about an abusive father, death, species extinction, other types of loss. Birds have been instrumental in poems about parenting and love. Birds have been my bridges to poems I wouldn’t have otherwise known how to approach. Of course I feel conflicted about them. Of course I haven’t quite forgiven birds for leading me to these truths.
And I will continue with my birding walks: Pete and Amy and Janet and Corwin, telling me the regional differences in bird calls as if some of this information might stick. Second Sarah, holding up a bird feather and knowing not just what type of bird, but what part of the bird it came from.
Out in the world, I can’t tell you the call of a scarlet tanager versus a robin, though I remember one is a sore-throated version of the other. Cowbird versus catbird: who knows, except they’re both named after mammals that don’t look like them. But in writing, I’ll research the details. The birds come to roost. I don’t know why they’re in my writing so much, but they are.
I’m no fool, though. I throw the windows wide. I invite them in.