Birds. There, I said it. This post is going to be about birds. The feathered kind. Not how some men in the UK refer to women, or how plane-spotters might reference an aircraft in the sky. Just those avians that can be found everywhere on the planet. A creature that can be both uplifting and terrifying depending on the species.
I have some strong opinions on birds so you’ll have to bear with me. I would also like to acknowledge at this point in the post that the mere fact I am writing about birds at all is an end result of me ‘turning into my mother’. That dreaded phrase we all hear in our youth and think, “Ha! That will never be me!” And yet….here I sit, pondering our chirpy little friends. I fully accept that the (bird) seed was planted into my consciousness from a very young age, so to be fair I never really stood a chance of not becoming a pro-bird person.
Appreciation of the winged variety came at me from both sides of the family. One one side, we had Grandma (my dad’s mother) who had Budgie in the house. A neon green parakeet that I used to sit and stare at in its cage. He wasn’t caged all the time for anyone wondering, he was allowed to flutter around the house to my recollection. On the other side, my Nanny and Papa were avid bird watchers. Bird books by the dozen, field guides, numerous binoculars, bird feeders, you name it they had it. I was hopelessly under the influence of a full court bird press.
We had a few occasions where birds would smack into the rear picture window at Nanny’s despite the stained glass pieces suction-cupped to the glass to indicate that this space was most certainly not a thoroughfare. Upon hearing said thwack, my sister Val and I would leg it outside to check if the bird was okay. Often it would be dazed and then hop off, eventually getting itself back in the air. One time, it really wasn’t moving. My mom and Nanny came out and we gingerly picked it up, seeing that it was still breathing. “Blow on it gently”, Nanny instructed, “he just needs a little air.” Val and I did as we were told, and ever so gently we blew on his little beak like a spoonful of piping hot soup. Next thing we knew, his crepey little eyelids rolled back and he was awake. He righted himself on Val’s hand and was aloft in no time. I felt triumphant for the rest of the day. We were bird first aiders.
There have been lesser moments with birds though. The time we were at my grandparents up north, and having outstretched my arm to excitedly point at a bird, I felt a splotch on my forearm. The first, but sadly not the last, time I have been pooped on by a bird. During our annual travels to Manitoulin Island via the Chi Cheemaun ferry, scandalous seagulls would brazenly clip our fingertips when taking the Cheesies we were kindly offering. Snatch and grab artists at heart, it could often feel a little sinister when you got caught on your own on the outdoor rear deck by a pack of gulls who were eyeballing your orange fingers.
Did I mention the impact of animated birds on our family? We watched most of these movies over and over again, but looking back I realise that many of our favourite characters were indeed bird characters. Bambi had the blustering Friend Owl whose favourite word was ‘twitterpated’. [Aside: one could argue that this is the affliction for one Donald J.Trump]. The Sword in the Stone had Archimedes (another owl), an intellectual owl who was probably my favourite. He would harrumph and puff like the prickly soul he was. The Secret of Nimh had the scary Great Owl but also a comedy crow called Jeremy who liked sparkly things [See later paragraph in this post for more information]. Robin Hood had Lady Kluck who, with her Scottish accent and touchdown runs, had my mother in stitches. Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent had her horrible raven Diablo. Dodo’s and flamingos in Alice in Wonderland. I could go on, but you get the idea. These characters continued to build on my affinity for birds well into young adulthood. I was crossing a line that I would never go back on.
Expanding on owls, my sister Val and I also hold a certain affection for a particular episode of Ramona Quimby, of the Beverley Cleary books fame, simply known as ‘Owl Trouble’. Those books shaped a lot of our sisterly dynamics I dare say. If you don’t know the books I wouldn’t expect you to get the reference, but just know that everyone has a ‘Snoozin’ Susan’ in their life and she had it coming with the owl trouble.
The ultimate expression of my budding bird love was probably when I was in Brownies. I must have been in grade five, 9 years old, and looking for a badge. The Brownie book was filled with badges you could acquire and put on your sleeve. But a lot depended on what you had at your disposal to achieve that badge. I didn’t have skis or skates at the time, and it was winter so I couldn’t aim for any of the summer seasonal badges. Poring over the list of badge candidates I suddenly knew which one I would tackle….the ‘Friend to Birds’ badge. That’s right, I would befriend birds the Brownie way. I can’t even remember what the qualifiers were to achieve the badge, I likely had to do a mini report on my favourite type of bird, or identify a certain number of species. Maybe prove I fed some wildlife. Whatever it was, I was down with that. I got my badge, my very first one. For anyone interested I was a Gnome, by the way.
As I got older, I learned the finer nuances of bird feeders, squirrel baffles, types of feed and suet. This was all in a days work at the Cruise house because my mom had a myriad of feeders to attend to year round. We had a tray feeder right off the front and centre window, carefully placed so the birds could be seen up close and personal. I should add this was to the extreme delight of our Siamese cats. Val and I would monitor the songbirds that patronised our feeders. We could name our sparrow varieties by heart, knew a siskin from a finch, a chickadee from junco; would pass comment when the larger birds were at the more distant feeders: your typical jays, cardinals, waxwings, orioles, nuthatches, starlings, grackles. I’ll never forget the day we spotted an Indigo Bunting who was, according to the rapidly grabbed field guide, WAY out of his normal migratory zones.
I could even talk shop with my friends older family members. Bird watching isn’t typically in the repertoire of the young, you see. My friend Carla’s Nana used to call me ‘Bird Girl’ when she couldn’t remember my name because when I’d see her she knew that I knew my stuff, and she was a keen bird watcher. I took that as a positive on face value, I was one of the tribe.
Later in life while on summer break from university, my love for birds was tested. A kind of stress test I never saw coming. I used to cycle on the Georgian Trail for exercise once my parents moved to a house on the shore of the bay. It was easy to access the trail just across the highway so became my preferred workout. I was happily cycling down the trail, with the sun at my back, not a care in the world. I could see a shadow in the foreground of myself on the bike stretching in front of me. And then there was another shadow. Small at first, it grew larger and inexplicably larger. Like that pink ball the Good Witch Glinda travels in to drop in on Munchkinland. But I was most certainly not in Oz, and it was looming over my head.
In a split second, I could feel the rapid flapping of wings, which actually brushed the back of my head and side of my face. This bird was ‘attacking’ me! Screaming like a lunatic I double hand-braked my mountain bike, and went sideways into a spectacular power slide. Now is good time to point out the trail is tiny white milled gravel which left me with a road rash to remember. Dazed, I saw the culprit who had landed not far away from my sprawling mess of a crash. I mean, he was practically on the ground by the time he got to my head so it made sense he landed. It was a common starling. To this day I think he was smirking at me from his vantage point.
Arms and legs bleeding and embarrassed, because yes- I had an audience in the form of a man who was mowing his lawn that had frontage to the trail, I clambered back on the bike and slowly pedalled home. Unnerved by the fact that I no longer had any shadow cues to my advantage should this aberration of a bird come back for more. But it didn’t. When I got home I realised that it was probably after my silver hair clip with a mirror shine that starlings can’t resist. I made a mental note to only ever use a hair tie in future.
My husband had an unfortunate run in with a bird also. At 6’8″ tall, his head is in it’s own microclimate. Rounding a building corner one day, minding his own business, a pigeon impaled him in the forehead with such an impact, he was bleeding all over the place. The pigeon was down too, the wind knocked out of it. Both survived, but it does lead me to comment that not everyone is fond of birds, whether it be a result of an accident or otherwise. Marco bears the scar on his forehead from that unexpected run in with that beak. And my friend Erin isn’t a fan of birds in general, for example. I don’t think there is any particular reason or any sort of inciting incident for her dislike, but there you have it.
What I can tell you is that although birds have flaws like everything on earth does, for the most part they do make me happy. There is nothing more cheerful than a blackbird freestyling his little heart out up in the branches on a summer morning. I have been know to call blackbirds the ‘jazz birds’ of the bird world because no two calls are alike. In my mind they would be Dizzy Gillespie or Wynton Marsalis wailing on the trumpet. Their pitch swings wildly from high to low, the tempo pacy yet irregular, numerous trills and chirps chucked in at random to punctuate their message.
Sadly I don’t have a bird feeder at our home here in London. It has NOTHING whatsoever to do with a husband whose OCD would be most unhappy about birdseed and birdpoop scattered around his newly paved turf. Nope. But I still have the song ringing throughout the house when I throw open the windows. I even have a canvas of lots of birds that I bought for an area off the kitchen. And I still love sitting in my parents back porch and gazebo clocking all the different birds I can spot (now with added woodpeckers and hummingbirds!) on our annual trips home.
Here in the UK people who birdwatch are known as ‘twitchers’.
I, for one, proudly count myself as one.