Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

Crows, Grant Park, 4-13-2011

I started feeding birds so that I could observe them, get to know them, even try to imagine what it is like to be a bird, I suppose. Birds that possess the phenomenon of flight are wondrous for that alone. Their ability to fly symbolizes freedom, just as the horses I loved in my youth accomplished a land-based form of flight, enabled by power and speed.

Entrance to the bird world with food is common, of course. It’s about the only way you can get a bird’s attention long enough to bother with you. Who can blame birds for not being too curious about us? If anything, we have been creatures to fear. So when I have been feeding birds long enough that they come to trust me, I feel blessed that I am welcome to cross the barrier temporarily that must remain between us, however fleeting the moment. There is nothing more remarkable to me than the velvet sound of a crow’s wings passing close over my head.

Or the direct eye contact with a Robin who stands his ground as I acknowledge his presence.

As I was writing part of this, my zebra finch Pietro landed on my head to check out my hair. Was he only looking for nesting material, or does he sometimes entertain the thought of preening me?

I was wandering about the park on my lunch hour last week, looking for migrants even though it’s too early to expect them, almost having to remind myself to take photographs anyway, even if they were of the same birds I’ve been seeing all year. As I walked up the hill on my way back to work, a woman stopped to ask me if I was a birdwatcher or a photographer and I said a bit of both. That one sort of drives the other. We had a short conversation about my engagement and her lack thereof, I suppose, as I had inadvertently distracted her from her tennis game with my pursuit of birds. I apologized, only to have her thank me. Perhaps tennis was not her calling that day, but she was definitely aware following birds around was mine.

It doesn’t happen too often, but I have affected people before. Years ago when I used to feed the pigeons that followed me around like a train, it was when I was sitting hanging out with them as they clambered over each other to get at the bird seed or landed on my hand or my head (I never, ever got pooped on!) – from time to time a student from the Art Institute would come to draw me or take a picture. Pigeons were my easy entry into the bird world; they have accompanied human settlement for millennia. But they also taught me how to read expression that went beyond that pale orange eye. And I learned to recognize some of them by their distinctive coloring or behavior.

I have to say most of the people I work with who know I am interested in birds usually come to tell me about birds they have seen, and in this I feel as if I have made a contribution. If I have managed to get one more person to pay attention to something in nature that they otherwise would not have bothered, then I have done my job. This week, however, a superior ran into me leaving one afternoon in my usual garb: Chicago Audubon baseball cap, binoculars around my neck, camera slung on my shoulder. She said, “I suppose it’s a nice hobby.” I am sure she was trying to be nice or more like trying to find a way to deal with my get-up, but I took silent offense to the word “hobby” and her lack of curiosity. My obsession with birds, if you will, is more a way of life than a “hobby.” Being in nature is not a hobby. A hobby connotes something someone has taken up because they decide to do it, not necessarily because it picks them. Here’s the dictionary definition: “an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.”

It’s true, I am not “paid” to pay attention to birds but I think of it as more of a main occupation than my paying job, so I guess it’s a matter of interpretation.

With birds, it has been more of a calling. At the start of my association with the avians, when the birds came to hear the music, they chose me to tell a part of their story no one else had told before. If it meant telling people they sang in key with the music, maybe that would let people know that birds had something in common with us. As I attempt to do justice to the birds’ story, I am always in discovery, never knowing where the next sentence is coming from.

White-Wing 4/4/12

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