Birds are good messengers. They're one of our most available liaisons from that club we sometimes forget or deny we belong to—the world of nature. Sometimes the message is simply: "This nuthatch is here." The surprise, delight, or other emotion that message elicits varies widely. A flock of pigeons wheeling over a town center, leaving one building for another might be the epitome of the ordinary. But we'd probably miss them if we didn't have them, for mysterious reasons.
The other day it was milder than it's been, in the thirties, and in the hardware store parking lot I heard a robin give its ordinary cook-cook-cook exclamation (part churlish, part Curlyish) from a nearby bare tree. The very normality of it meant something—that it wasn't as cold or as forbidding as it's been. It was a day more inviting of a casual remark.
Because of the cold and a Parkinsonian tendency to blame inertia on Parkinson's, my encounters with birds outdoors have been minimal lately. And there have been plenty of enticements. An article on the front page of the Boston Globe told about the appearance of snowy owls lately on local beaches, fields, Logan Airport. The snowy owl is a messenger from the semi-mythical north: a spectral white gnome in the dunes who doesn't come down here very often. Here's a female snowy that local photographer George McLean captured, mukluks and all:
If you spend your time mostly inside, you rely on reports or photos from people who do go out, like the account I got last week from birder friend and jazz scribe, Ed Hazell. On Martin Luther King day, he went out to Plum Island, and saw
"... A bald eagle at Lot 1. A low flyover snowy that was so spectacular and so unexpected that I nearly drove into the marshes (there were two more, stationary and far off sightings later in the day). A rough-legged hawk was hovering and hunting near the North Pool and I had a really long look. The sun was in and out of the clouds and when it came out, it lit up the hawk splendidly...."
In addition to raptors, the bum saw horned larks (little masked marauders with tiny black devil horns like someone's rude graffiti in a bird book, come to life) and snow geese, and a northern shrike (bigger, big-headed masked marauder, whose name Nathanael West borrowed for the cynical features editor, Shrike, in Miss Lonelyhearts).
When you have a banner day like Ed's, it's enough to be able to fit these new acquaintances into the system of birds. Each one individually is "this bird here", but what do we know about the "here"? I don't mean the habitat, I mean the kind of bird internet, the system of birds the messengers represent and report from, whether a ghostlike snowy owl or a drab gang of pigeons.
It's good to experience it directly, off-center and in rough context, but indirect communicates too. I sometimes wonder how much of a birder Emily Dickinson was, to write "Hope" is the thing with feathers. Hope is certainly what drives birders to go out, but Emily didn't get out much, they say. Nowadays her friends would be emailing her things all the time. Ann Downer, Ed's wife, would have been one of them. She sent me this link about thirteen cozy bluebirds, which I sent to a flock of birder friends, with this verse:
Sing a song of sixpence,
Post it on a blog:
13 eastern bluebirds
Tucked in a log
One of those friends I sent it to, Hilary, replied with another bird message—in word, but also in word-picture. Commenting on my brief discussion, some weeks ago, of daylight lingering later, she wrote: "I like your appreciation of the late-day light and longer days. Today I just read somewhere that every day gets a rooster's step longer."
I pause to let my readers run that movie of a rooster stepping across a barn floor, setting down its spraggle-toed, corncob feet with care and deliberation.
Hilary remembered that she had read this almanac-worthy comparison in an issue of the Seed Savers Exchange, in an essay by co-founder Diane Ott Whealy, who passed along this observation from her grandmother. She wrote: "One rooster step isn’t much, but a couple hundred rooster steps is the difference between a cold long winter’s night and a glorious summer evening. You can get a lot done with a few more rooster steps."
This too is a bird message, a message by way of a bird who showed it and a person who got it, translated it, and passed it on. We could all benefit from such collaborations!