Friday, July 20, 2018
Last summer, I spent hours in my back yard watching the birds--mostly sparrows, but also mourning doves, chickadees, house finches, and nuthatches--my favourite, with their squeeky-toy voices and their ability to walk down tree trunks without tumbling off. I'm not an experienced birder, so if there were other unusual birds in the tops of the Manitoba Maples in my back yard and the fir trees in front, I didn't notice them. I couldn't miss the sparrows or the mourning doves, though. The day often began with a pair of mourning doves flying in from their nest in the east. As soon as they arrived to peck at the seed that had fallen from my feeders, a single mourning dove would arrive from the west. Then a scene would unfold right out of a movie about high school. The pair would proudly eat a couple more seeds (how do you know if a mourning dove is being proud? I have no idea.) and then fly off in a huff. (How do you know that a mourning dove is in a huff? I don't know that either.) In our anthropocentric way, we call them mourning doves because their cries sound mournful to us, but are they expressions of grief or sadness for the bird? I have no idea about that either. But I could see that any place the single mourning dove was eating was an anathema to the couple. Mourning doves do mate for life, so my bachelor (or bachelorettte--sexes are hard to tell from a distance) could be mourning. But he could also have been flirting with the other male. Or with the wife.
My single mourning dove, though, was important for my ecosystem. After he was complacently pecking away at fallen seed, the sparrows would suddenly drop lightly around him, as if his presence was a kind of "all clear." When I was sitting out regularly, they would then begin to arrive in large flocks. A handful would go straight for the feeders, while others would line up on a couple of low branches close to the feeders--looking for all the world as if they were queueing. They would make the most delightful brown chaos. Occasionally half a dozen would take dirt baths in the dry soil of the unplanted part of my garden, creating little divots with their ruffling and their wiggling, which they can do faster than any pianist can trill. I tried to find metaphors or similes for the landscape under my feeders filled with bobbing sparrows. It is like a cauldron at a full rolling boil--but that hardly conveys the liveliness of all the brown feathers and the cacophony they create. Bubbles from a large wand? But those bubbles are languid and elegant, not quick and unselfconscious like my sparrows. Or like the flickering of dry leaves in an August wind--except the mood of that simile is entirely wrong for the lively energy of my sparrows. Maybe there is no visual equivalent. Perhaps they are like fifty lbjs (little brown jobs--the ornithologists' nickname for them) each dancing his or her own minuet.
It wasn't simply that I didn't have language for my sparrows. There was so much I didn't know about them. Clearly they travel in flocks: what are their social lives like? They seem to sit near one another on a long branch or join a second bird when they arrive, but I have yet to understand whether they hang out for long conversations, for competitions, or for the company needed to endure the physical and existential challenges of a long winter. If any communication is going on, I couldn't hear or see it, despite the fact that fifty birds are doing it at once. Often the whole flock at my feeder would be prompted by a single chirp to rise from the ground en masse, the whole troop together making a sound I can only compare to the wings of Milton's great angels. Just as often there was no false warning from a paranoid bird--just the audible crisp crackling of seeds--that set off the flight of a hundred wings. Whatever was happening, it was under my radar.
At this point, you are wondering why I didn't just get my bird book out. I have a great hulking Audobon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds, but it answered none of these questions. It did tell me that the sparrows are among the 436 species of songbirds in the finch family, but that the English sparrow--imported long ago from England--belongs to the weaverbirds and not the finches. Also, there was a "finch war" in North America shortly after the English sparrow began multiplying exponentially and scandalizing families out with their children because they shagged in the streets, in the parks, on the roofs--anywhere, really. Mao also declared war on sparrows, encouraging patriotic families to take a day outside to kill sparrows, only to regret it next year when the bug population soared. Fortunately, sparrows shag...well, the population bounced back and Mao learned about unintended consequences. But no one can tell me anything about their social lives or their language.
My general reading on bird languages suggests a problem scientists have not thought of. Each researcher interprets the "phonetics" of a bird's song differently, so it's hard for them to compare notes. Similarly, we know that different nationalities transcribe the sounds a cat makes differently. And indeed, there are way more sounds that the "meow" we assign to our cats. Tuck, my most talkative cat now, has a high, plaintive whine when he is hungry-something I've never heard before, but otherwise he talks to be in coos and trills and cheeps. I've had other cats who made sounds like his, particularly the trilling coo, but he often makes the most uncatlike sounds.
You may remember that I was spending time out with the sparrows because I was in mourning for Twig, one of my most remarkable, intuitive, and humane cats, who simply stopped eating because his body was worn out and it was time. So I would take my mourning coffee out with the birds instead of sitting under Twig and watching the news. The sparrows were way better than the news, but my lap was empty. Two new guys joined our household in early September, so I haven't been outside as much, and I can report that nothing like the flocks of fifty birds comes. I am guessing that my presence suggested there were no cats to threaten them and that the feeders were full. But I have had to take the feeders down because we have a marauding cat loose in the neighbourhood who leaps up and fastens all four sets of claws to the living room window screen and then yowls at my cats. Last Saturday, he startled them so much Lyra and Tuck began fighting with one another. I had not been watching these instances carefully enough, though I often closed the windows to the back yard. But Saturday was cool, and I wanted to cool off the house and Bill was making all kinds of noise in the back yard with the lawn mower and weed eater. I thought the marauder would stay away. Instead, I had to interpose the back of a chair between two cats who, until this moment, had never uttered so much as a growl to one another.
The rest of the day was rather subdued, though both Lyra and Tuck came upstairs to curl up on my ironing board, where I was working on a quilt, and gently groomed one another from time to time. I was kicking myself for not paying attention.
Don McKay generously edited Visible Cities before Veronica and I began sending it out to publishers, and he made a wonderful suggestion in the opening poem, "Unforeseen" about a back lane that, if studied carefully, is beautiful. I had written
Paying attention we might catch
the architect's gesture toward serene geometry,
her love of a surface not glass, light
feathered in the blue shadow
of winter afternoons.
Don changed this to "Giving attention," and he was so right. We don't pay attention. And in fact, as with my sparrows, attention doesn't pay in any of the usual ways. Rather, we give it to the world. If there is an economy of sparrow watching it is this: they kept my curiosity alive, gave me many questions to ask, prompted me to struggle with metaphors, and essentially said that they are beyond understanding. I should just enjoy them and the atmosphere they create in my back yard. In turn, the attention I gave them kept them safe and well-fed. Apparently urban birds get only about 10% of their food from feeders, but it is a 10% that can make the difference between getting by and thriving.
And I wasn't giving attention to Lyra and Tuck, with horrible results. We have found them another window, this one on the second storey, that has become their viewing deck. The tall lilacs between my house and my eastern neighbour are almost a flight school for small birds, and my cats are having a safe, wonderful time.
Unfortunately, this summer I've returned to watching the news while I drink my first cup of coffee, which is not really a good habit. But you've been doing something like that too: it's like watching a train wreck. You can't take your eyes away. Are we paying or giving attention? I don't want us to become cynical, so disillusioned that we stop giving attention altogether. So here's another Trumptime tool: give attention to the things that matter. Sometimes giving attention is an exercise in wonder, an admission that you don't understand the world, but that you celebrate its joys anyway. Sometimes it's an ethical imperative.
at 9:59 AM