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

Winter in Chicago, then and now


This has been the warmest La Nina ever, and I have to wonder if this hasn’t been the warmest January in Chicago. Of course it’s early yet. Last year on January 13 we had snow and the lake had a think layer of ice on it.

Snowcrow 01-13-2011

Lake birds, 01-13-2011

But the prediction this coming Friday is for above-normal temperatures to continue.

The lakefront sunrise Wednesday morning was earlier, the days are getting ever so slightly longer.

The crows, of course, were in attendance.

A now very famous Black-Throated Blue Warbler hanging out by the bicycle rental at Millennium Park…

has been sipping sap from the trees the Sapsuckers have drilled into.

The Sapsuckers themselves are late to leave.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

There was also a Cooper’s Hawk at Millennium Park that morning, and I annoyed him enough by taking his picture. He eventually moved on, leaving the warbler safe.

I woke up this morning with the prelude to the Bach A minor English Suite playing in my head. Only the purest silence eventually makes me aware. There was a little frost last night, but by the time I left the house it had melted off. I went to the Chicago Portage to see what exists. The tangled web of bare trees and dried vegetation offered winter views. All quiet, asleep, but potential lurks in that dormancy.

I did not get pictures of all 11 species that I saw. The first bird was a flyover Mallard duck. A little later I heard a constant sound that resembled a murmuring quack, or perhaps it was a squirrel sound. It turned out to be a Downy Woodpecker pecking away at the dried stems of Phragmites that grow by the water. I can’t imagine if the stems harbor dead bugs or some other delicacy but the Downy was persistent, until he flew up into the tree and gave me this nice photograph, one of several.

There were Mourning Doves sitting quietly in a tree.

Music in my head at the Portage was Albeniz, since I recently decided to revive the few pieces I once knew. The birds complied and remained in C#.

Female Northern Cardinal

On the path ahead there were several cardinals and goldfinches foraging.

American Goldfinches

It has been so warm, lichens are growing on this dead log.

I left the Portage and went to the grocery store, where by this time my head was playing the Tango by Albeniz which is in D major. I only remember this because the woman in line behind me thanked me for giving her my “tickets” – there’s some kind of promotion going on that I don’t have time for – and our conversation was in D. What would she think if I told her I had made her talk to me in the key of the music playing in my head? Was it worth the tickets I gave her?

I saw a Junco at the Portage but didn’t get a picture of one until I got home. This one is through the porch window.

Dark-Eyed Junco

Later this evening I counted 23 Mourning Doves under my feeder. It was too dark to take a picture, but I counted them three times to be sure. I had thought they were in decline because I wasn’t seeing them. I have never seen that many in my yard, ever! The new feeder must be doing a good job.

With a little luck I’ll have some musical excerpts coming up soon. So you won’t have to try so hard to hear the music playing in my head…