By Teddy Robertson
The front legs of my chair leave the floor, my hands pop off the laptop keyboard; I jerk backward. A split second, then a tinkling sound ripples over my left shoulder. I turn and look: in the storm window beside me fissures radiate outward as if pushed by an invisible hand. Something’s struck the plate glass almost dead center.
I’m out the door — scanning the front porch for a clue — but the missile lies farther away. On the lawn a small hawk rests belly down, tipped onto one shoulder where his wing meets his brown, speckled body. He quivers to right himself and then hazards a hesitant, off-kilter walk. A slow taxi to lift off and he’s gone.
My storm window? The oversized sheet of glass, maybe four foot by five, is one of two that cover twin dining room windows, and probably custom made for my 50s house in Mott Park. With my index finger I trace the cracks from the outer edge of the glass to a tiny pinprick at the center of the pane. Incredibly, no fragments have fallen out.
I call Flint Glass Company (once Koerts Glass on Dort Highway for Flintoids). Billy, grandson of the owner I knew years ago, drives from Flushing to take down the wood frame. Two weeks later, he returns with the storm window re-glazed and snaps it back into its much-painted metal hinges. One hinge of the four is missing, but the frame holds.
The hawk event was seven years ago, just about the time I retired. I think of it now as the herald of my bird watching years. I’m late to this sublime pleasure. Birder friends have tutored me; maybe my raptor had been a young migrant gone astray? These folks know the seasonal patterns — the first robin in March, the juncos in winter. Their feeders attract coveys of fluorescent yellow finches; they sight northern flickers, indigo buntings, real bluebirds.
I marvel at what I have missed.
I grew up in northern California where my eyes were fixed on the ground, the clay, rock and brown grass of summertime. Our house was on a hillside and we had few neighbors. I paid attention to gopher snakes and garter snakes. Rattlesnakes turned up some years (we didn’t talk about climate change then). As a kid of seven or eight, I knew to look where I stepped.
I remember the nodding heads of California quail and grating screech of the western blue jays that everyone called mean, but what were the little birds they bullied? No idea. An owl roosted in a crooked pine tree outside the bedroom windows, a comfort to me at night. It sounded something like a Great Horned owl, so I’ve ascertained online, six decades later.
My hometown, Mill Valley, was lucky to have a passionate nature educator named Elizabeth Terwilliger. She promoted love of nature for 60 years and her environmental activism preserved many local sites. In her broadbrimmed sun hat, “Mrs. T.” visited grade schools and led field trips to awaken kids’ interest in nature. Generations of school children learned about the birds, marshlands, and butterflies of Marin County.
But by sixth grade I was transferred to a Catholic school where I learned French and poetry and not about nature. Decades later when my son was crazy about dinosaurs and together we practiced pronouncing their names, I somehow I missed their evolutionary connection to birds. Archaeopteryx, missing link between birds and reptiles, lost out to Tyrannosaurus rex.
My partner, Dennis, once an avid hunter of dove in the California desert and wild turkey in Missouri woods, is now a bird watcher. Hunting taught him about doves, our most frequent birds, and he explains their ground feeding and roosting habits to me. Driving the expressway in Michigan, he notes the woods and thickets that must be full of turkeys.
I have Stan Tekiela’s The Birds of Michigan field guide, a first edition bought at Young and Welshans 20 years ago for my mother, then newly transplanted to Flint from the West Coast. I watched her shriek in 80-year-old delight when she spotted a northern cardinal on the backyard shed in the snow. A few years later, bedridden and in hospice care, she could see birds flutter at feeders; we watched together when she could no longer speak.
The Birds of Michigan organizes species by color, a system of “mostly” black, “mostly” brown, and “mostly” blue. At first, the term “mostly” reassured me, but I grew baffled by the number of dun-colored females that turn up in different sections.
I move online and find the Cornell Ornithological Labs with its chart of bird silhouettes and learned the first identification step: size and shape. The robin is both a kind of thrush and a handy gauge of size (“is it larger or smaller than a robin?”). Clicking on the few species I know, I learned that tits and titmice are grouped with chickadees, that the cardinal is a kind of finch, that blue jays are related to crows, and that the starlings that carpet the lawn after a rain belong with blackbirds like the red-winged blackbird, grackle, and brown-headed cowbirds.
The Cornell site confirms that a young, broad-winged hawk probably hit my window, perhaps gone astray from his kin or “kettle,” en route to Canada in spring. The mailman on my street, Nick, hails from Alaska; he knows about birds and wildlife and alerts the neighborhood Facebook page when he sights bald eagles that soar above the Mott Park Recreation Area.
Summer mornings I wake to the sounds of bird song. I pour wild finch seed into an old terra cotta saucer on the ledge of my front porch. The quiet, routine task allows my last pre-conscious dream life to filter into the beginning of the day. The birds are small and plump, and I recognize them now as black-capped chickadees. They don’t look like they need my cheap seed, but I cherish the peaceful satisfaction their feeding brings me.
The birds swoop in and land in a clump, then squeak and shove until four or five feed at a time. Those that don’t make it to the saucer busy themselves on the ledge with the seeds the victorious ones scatter. A squabbling rotation with chest puffery and fluttering wings and the first feeders dart off and a new set of three or four wedges in. When the seed is mostly gone, a single outlier bird hops into the center of the saucer and picks at the powder and hulls remaining.
I bought a tubular finch feeder and the variety of birds has picked up. Red-winged blackbirds and downy woodpeckers try their luck at the small holes. Next door, a rusted old TV aerial never dismantled by an aging neighbor attracts birds at 32 feet. In the evening, a large woodpecker drums on its hollow metal poles like an avian head-banger.
Neighborhood cats prowl. The first was Ralphie, a hefty marmalade-colored veteran with yellow eyes placed a bit too close together. Confident in his weight and age, he’d lumber along the perimeter of my backyard lawn in that cautious way of cats, wary of open space. Not needing the food of nature, he still practiced the habits of his species. Since Ralphie’s family moved away, a young, lean tiger-stripe appears on my porch in the morning. Eyes fixed on the finch tube, he stretches his body upward, gauging the distance to the feeder. He once succeeded; I found the feathers.
Backyard bird feeding is a modern pastime, dating in America from Thoreau, who scattered old corn to see what animals would appear outside his hut at Walden Pond in 1845. The first Audubon society appeared in 1895 and ardent bird lovers crusaded against the use of feathers in belle epoque hat wear. Commercial bird feeders were marketed in the 1920s and field guides like Audubon and Peterson appeared in the 1930s, linking amateur enthusiasts with ornithologists.
With the postwar housing boom, new generations gained a lawn to mow, a yard to garden, and birdseed in the grocery store. In 2001, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service calculated that some 52 million Americans feed birds.
But the environmental movement that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s has schooled us in the potential negative, even disastrous, effects human activity can bring to the planet and all its life. Our interaction with nature cannot be neutral. Current studies consider how supplementary feeding affects bird species.
Each evening I shake out the hulls in the saucer and unhook the finch feeder, usually overdue for cleaning — every two weeks is the guideline. In summer twilight, days before the solstice, birdsong rises on the west side of the house, piercing the warm living room air even when the TV blares at prime time. The urgency of the birds’ calls alerts me to the end of day; sometimes I hear a kind of panic in their sounds.
Banner photo of birds in Mott Park by Dennis Brown.
EVM columnist Teddy Robertson can be reached at email@example.com.