Circling in a sky filled with snow clouds, the bird came sweeping across the view from our windshield and my friend who was driving slowed and excitedly pointed out that it was a bald eagle. Days later, I’m still in awe of seeing the majestic bird, thankful that its populations are coming back and in unexpected places.
Many of us have a connection with birds, from the full-tilt birders who travel hundreds of miles if they catch wind of an unusual species, to those who dutifully fill feeders with sunflower and thistle weed seeds. We can’t pet and cuddle them like we do dogs and cats, yet there’s a bond with these creatures that skirt so close to heaven.
My friend Diane is an animal whisperer, whether it’s calming a 15-pound cat so she can clip his claws, to tending to a hamster with an abscess on its chin. The other spring she was rushing to get herself and her boys out the door when one of them noticed a fallen bird nest filled with chirping babies. She placed the nest in a more secure place and hustled everyone along, planning to take broader measures when they got home.
One of the boy’s teachers is a wild bird expert and she told Diane to mash up blueberries and a few other tidbits to feed the yammering youngsters. After serving up a meal, her sons watching with rapt attention, she noticed the mamma bird sitting on a fence post with a worm in her mouth. “I guess you can take it from here,” Diane said, but that still didn’t stop her from installing an umbrella over the nest to shield them from a blazing sun. She and the boys watched the birds’ progress from scrawny to sprouting sufficient feathers to leave the nest.
A recent study from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute reported that cats kill roughly half a billion birds yearly. My cats, Jake and Otis, occasionally are allowed in the backyard and much as I hate to admit it have contributed to the death toll. But, there have also been occasions when they’ve just roughed them up a little and take heed to my shrieks by releasing them.
Jake once brought a bird in the back door and before I could stop him he was upstairs in my bedroom. He dropped it and I slapped a trashcan over the lifeless bird, scootching it to the porch off the bedroom. When I lifted the can, the bird surprised me by rousing himself and flying over the railing. I noticed he was joined in flight by another bird waiting on the fence post, no doubt tweeting to his pal: “Stop playing around with that cat, we have places to go.”
Birds inspired the first aviators, even as they’ve been known to gum up the engines of jet planes.
Birds can also be a source of comfort for some when a loved one dies. Maybe it’s the closest thing to an angel. Hummingbirds always remind my friend Lori of her husband who died several years ago, although Arnold, a lanky man, was more like a crane. They had spent evenings on their front porch watching hummingbirds and she now savors the memory whenever she sees the blur of tiny wings.
For my friend, Kate, who also died way too soon, cardinals are a way to remember her. On the morning she died one of our friends was staring out her window contemplating the hole in her heart when she saw a flock of cardinals. She ran for her camera and when she got back they were all gone except for one perched on a branch that looked straight at her. “Hello, Kate,” she found herself whispering.
It’s nearing the year anniversary of Kate’s passing and another of her many friends, Gina, recently caught a flash of cardinal red outside her window. She stood there for a few minutes, tears springing to her eyes.
“Mommy, why are you crying about birds?” her young son asked.
— Nancy Luse is a writer and editor in Frederick, Md., who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.