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The Glory of the Innocent

January 6, 2013
crested terns, Captiva

crested terns, Captiva

Ever since I can remember, the most important people in my life liked birds. When I was a little boy, I recall watching as my grand-daddy put suet in a wire mesh feeder that hung by the holly bush in the back of his house to feed the birds in the winter. A cement bird bath sat along the back border of his garden where a wide variety of feathered friends would splash about during the summer. My father also had these same attractions in our own yard, and I found it to be both educational and entertaining to watch all of our visitors eating and bathing and chirping to the world for what seemed to be no other reason than for the pure joy of it. This turned out to be the beginnings of a lifelong relationship with the avian world.

Birds are for the most part beneficial; I know of no species that do us great harm (besides those in the Hitchcock movie) other than occasionally pooping on the odd car. Their colorful plumage has been exploited for fashion, their eggs and meat have nourished people of all cultures throughout history, their special skills have improved our lives from the vulture’s removal of carrion to the hummingbird’s pollination of flowers. We have kept budgies and parrots for pets, trained cormorants to fish, marveled at the incomparable virtuosity of the mockingbird, made poignant movies with penguins, and even used various raptors as symbols of the greatness of our nations. They populate every continent and have been an inextricable part of humankind’s existence for all of our time on this earth.

prehistoric-looking pelican

brown  pelican

I am not a fully committed extreme birdwatcher such as the ones in the delightful little movie The Big Year who travel hither and yon in search of as many species as possible (the record is 755 in a year). However, I do take great delight in sighting them wherever I happen to be. I have been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit, and in virtually every place I’ve been, there have been memorable birds, some of which I’ve been lucky enough to capture on film from the oddly shaped pelicans of the Atlantic coastline to the graceful egrets and herons of Florida to the feisty sandpipers of the beaches of the Eastern shores and the majestic eagles of Alaska.

white heron, Florida

Great Egret, Florida

At home, too, the birds have provided plentiful pleasure. When we first moved to our house, there was a swampy wooded area behind our backyard which became the home to a pair of mallard ducks. They would paddle about contentedly in search of food until the arrival of winter, and the next spring return again. My wife (who named them Mal and Honey) was quite happy to find out that they mated for life. They were our neighbors for years until, much to our dismay, construction of a new housing development began, and they left in search of a new residence.

mallard male

mallard male

We always put up a bird feeder during the winter months (my father always said they need to fend for themselves the rest of the year). For years it has hung from a tree limb in our backyard. We would spend many an hour watching for who would come, first the smaller ones, juncos and chickadees and nuthatches, then the bright red cardinals with their grayer mates, the blue jays, the mourning doves, and finally, our favorites, the woodpeckers, the colorful red-bellied and the smaller black checked downy.

red-bellied woodpecker sharing with a sparrow

red-bellied woodpecker sharing with a sparrow

In our front yard stands a patch of corn flowers that bloom yellow in the summer and draw myriad bees and butterflies. Each fall, however, when the flowers go to seed, the tiny yellow and black Goldfinches arrive to gorge upon this windfall of protein. They flit to and fro from the surrounding trees to the flowers, high-pitched cheeps accompanying them as they go. Observing them in this autumn feast has become a ritual in our household, and a strange sadness settles over us when the time comes for them to move on before the heart of the winter comes. These little fellows are part of the fabric of our existence in this house.

I’m not sure why I like birds so much. Perhaps part of it is the marvelous diversity of these creatures from the awkward to the beautiful, the tiny to the powerful, the gaudy to the simple — just like people, I suppose. I must admit that there are some I am not so fond of, the bullies of the species such as crows and blue jays. I tend to have a soft spot for the small and the vulnerable, the common brown sparrows and the timid chickadees. I think this too reflects my feelings about their human counterparts. I remember well the first time I read poet Anne Marie Macri’s poem “Glory,” how I was moved by these lines: “And what about the meek and lame? And the glory of the innocent? What about the thumb-sized heart-broken birds? The ones who die in their sleep, their long beaks warm from probing flower’s throats and answering the trumpets. Their emerald bellies heave. One last time they heave, having worked their whole lives to stay aloft.” And isn’t that true of so many of us, working our whole lives to stay aloft, fending off the dangers of the world and suffering the bullies amongst our own kind?

I think most of all I like birds because they make me think of my father. He could be a gruff and taciturn man, but his tender side revealed itself when I watched him tending to the birds, looking out for their welfare, protecting them when they may not have been able to do so themselves. I think of him when I look at his ancient copies of The Book of Birds, Volume 1 and 2, from the National Geographic Society, 1937, now on my book shelf. I look back at some of the pictures within — the one of the owl, talons sunk in the rabbit it caught that upset my sister so, the one of the last surviving Great Auk that looked both befuddled and lonely, the one of the Man-O’-War-Bird’s throat puffing out to court a mate — and I remember my fascination and awe of these creatures. I think of him when I can identify the song of a bird — he knew them all — and recognize one when I see it on our feeder. I know for a fact that he worked his whole life to stay aloft, and I believe he too had a soft spot for the vulnerable feathered creatures that are all around us but so often ignored. If I too can help preserve the glory of the innocent as he did, then I shall maintain this connection between us, and that brings peace to my heart.

sandpiper

sandpiper

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