Nature / Ritual

The Secret Bird Society

We’ve lived in Gainesville, Florida for a little over nine months but I was born and raised here for the first 27 years of my life.  In all the time I grew up and lived here, I had never really taken notice of the birds.  I lived in San Francisco for nine years before moving back to Gainesville and we lived right in the heart of the City.  Around there you mostly see Pigeons (and Pigeons, and Pigeons and more Pigeons), Crows, Ravens, Hummingbirds and the occasional Hawk.  Of course, when you venture outside the City there’s lots more to be seen, but those trips were few and far between and usually had a specific purpose that did not involve bird watching.  I knew the birds were there, I saw them, but I wasn’t in awe of them.  I wasn’t in love with them.  I considered them in the same way I do any living creature, but nothing was particularly calling to me.  In hindsight, I feel it was the lack of diversity on a daily basis that left me feeling neutral about the birds.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

(click here to listen to the Cranes)

The start of my new-found fascination came only a couple of months after we arrived in Gainesville.  Every year around November, thousands (yes, thousands) of Sandhill Cranes descend on lakes and marshes around Alachua County and north central Florida to spend the winter.  There are also over 20 pairs that nest here year-round.  Quite large birds, they are a spectacle to behold when they fly over in great flocks making their rolling, trumpeting call.  I have yet to see one up close and have only seen them flying overhead.  You’d think after living here for most of my life I would have noticed the Cranes before, but alas I had not and this was the start of a new perception of my old stomping grounds.

A day and then a week passed by:
The redbird hanging from the sill
Sang not; and all were wondering why
It was so still—
When one bright morning, loud and clear,
Its whistle smote my drowsy ear,
Ten times repeated, till the sound
Filled every echoing niche around;
And all things earliest loved by me,—
The bird, the brook, the flower, the tree,—
Came back again, as thus I heard
The cardinal bird.
 ~William Davis Gallagher

 

northern_cardinal_6

Northern Cardinals

Then I started listening.  I began to be aware of all the non-city sounds of nature that I had grown accustomed to living without.  In our tiny little backyard I watched the Cardinal pairs finding their breakfast in the morning, making high-pitched chirping noises to each other as they moved along.  The next key step on my path to the birds was my job.  My job has absolutely nothing to do with birds, yet this is where everything came together.  I work at a church (a nice, loving, open to literally anyone and everyone church) and my window faces the central courtyard of the church grounds where a good sized fountain is the focal point.  The grounds are also covered with large trees – pine, oak, holly, etc.  Movement would catch my eye out the window and I would see a bright red male Cardinal drinking on the edge of the fountain.  I would hear that high-pitched chirping and see the less colorful female sitting on a nearby bench.  After a few minutes they would switch places and she would drink while he was the lookout, chirping to her all the while that he was close at hand.  I was getting a tiny peek into their intricate behaviors and language.

Next came the Warblers and the Wrens.  These tiny, plump little birds are everywhere.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

The delightfully named Yellow-Rumped Warblers love to come take a bath in the fountain outside my window.  The sweet little Carolina Wrens love to sit in the trees, throw their heads back and sing-a-ling-sing at the top of their tiny little lungs.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

American Robin

American Robin

Then came the Robins.  Another bird that migrates through this area in the fall and winter, the Robins arrived in full force.  One day they were not there and then all of a sudden they were.  I noticed out my window the lower branches of the trees shaking and rustling.  I went outside and could hear them singing, but couldn’t quite see them.  Looking up into the trees, there were about 50 of them all around the courtyard.  In groups of about ten, they came down to bathe in the fountain.  The Robins crowded shoulder to shoulder around the edge while four or five of them were in the basin fluttering and splashing.  A couple would hop out to the lower edge of the fountain making room for more in the basin.  There were so many!!  Staying for only a few hours, just as quickly as they came, they were gone.

One thing that had been a constant throughout all of this bird discovery was the Crows.  Early in the morning and late in the afternoon, several Crows would come land on top of the fountain.  There’s a stone sphere at the top of the fountain where the water comes out and runs down into the basin and then through four troughs to splash down into the larger part below.  The Crows would come take turns standing on the sphere, letting the water wash over their legs and feet, bending over once in a while to drink from it.  Sometimes there would just be one and at the most I saw four Crows there at the same time.  Up close like that, they are so much bigger than I ever realize and you can see the cleverness in their eyes as they look around and engage with each other.  I couldn’t stop watching them when they came.  Going outside when they flew away, I could see that they weren’t going far and staying in the trees and rooftops close by.  A few times I was able to be outside when they were on the fountain and after being carefully scrutinized, they didn’t seem to mind my presence.  Everyone at work knew I was fixated on these Crows and they had started to referring them as “my Crows.” Then came an ill-fated day.

American Crow

American Crow

Working away inside, I start hearing a ruckus of Crow cawing.  It gets louder and more intense, but there’s two people at my desk, the phone is ringing and some workmen need to get in the side gate, so I couldn’t go check it out.  When things calmed down a few minutes later, my co-worker comes inside and says, “One of your Crows is dead.”  We go out to see and lo and behold, there is a dead Crow laying right in front of the entrance to the church sanctuary.  The workmen saw us looking at it and said they had seen the whole thing – a Hawk (red-shouldered are the most common around here) and a Crow were fighting and apparently, the Hawk was the winner.  The Crow didn’t look as if it had been attacked by a Hawk, as it wasn’t visibly cut or wounded, so we suspected it somehow broke its neck.  In our area there are some warnings about handling certain birds if you find them because of diseases and pests, so we called the local animal center and were told that we could do whatever we wanted with it.  No one at work wanted to make a decision, since it was “my Crow,” and I soon found myself alone in the office while they went off to meetings and appointments.  Moments later, one of the ministers came in who had not been around for the accident.  I told him what happened and asked what we should do with it, explaining that we absolutely could not just put it in the dumpster.  He said, “Come with me.”  I followed him while he got a large shovel and ever so gently scooped up the Crow.  We took it into the Spiritual Garden next to the sanctuary and chapel and proceeded to have a little funeral.  He buried it and we stood there for a moment…it was unexpectedly emotional.  For several months after this, no Crows were seen around the church and just in the last few weeks have they started to return.

This was a pivotal experience in the development of my communion with Birds.  Not only was I just noticing birds more everywhere I went, I was noticing everything about them – their songs, their colors, the way they walked, what they were eating, how they behaved with one another, etc, etc.  Two of my co-workers are also bird watchers and I was constantly asking them “what’s this one?” and “what’s that one?”  Soon after, one of them brought binoculars and a bird identification book to work.  Boom…obsession engaged!  Within a couple of weeks I had identified about eight of the birds I saw on a regular basis.  After a few months, now I can easily identify about 22 birds that are seen in this area.

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Over the months I’ve fallen in love with these creatures.  They mesmerize me.  I’m now aware that the courtyard at work is home to several pairs of Cardinals and at least two pairs of Blue Jays.  The Blue Jays try to trick me with their Hawk-like screeching, but I’ve come to discern them from each other.  Related to Crows, the Blue Jays look up at me when they’re drinking from the fountain with a similar clever sparkle in their eye, although with a bit more mischief.  There’s a Red-Bellied Woodpecker (whose belly is actually not that red) that comes out like clockwork every morning.  Between 8:15am and 9:00am, he walks along the high wooden beams outside the church sanctuary hammering away for his breakfast.  Later in the day, he waits for the Blue Jays to start feeding in the open spaces of the courtyard and joins them.  It’s interesting because the Blue Jays don’t seem to mind him and he never comes down to feed in the grass unless they are there.  Taking a walk through the parking lot at work is like walking through a mini nature trail and I’ve learned to listen for the Woodpecker’s unique rolling call.  Even right outside my house, one morning I was about 30 feet away from a very large Pileated Woodpecker who was walking upside down along a large tree limb.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

My birdie looked wise
With his little black eyes,
As he peeked and peered from his perch at me
With a throbbing throat and a flutter of glee,
As if he would say—
Sing trouble away,
Chickadee, chickadee, chickadee-dee.
~ Hanford Lennox Gordon

 

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

I’m sure many other birds have their nests around the church grounds, but I’ve only seen the nests of the Cardinals and Blue Jays.  Whether they call it home or not, the area is a playground for many other birds.  I’ve watched the Tufted Titmice hold on with their feet and swing themselves around and around the branches and the Carolina Chickadees hopping and flitting about making a shrub look as if it’s come to life.  The Gray Catbirds like to sit along the fence and make their weird sort-of-cat-like call.  The Mockingbirds are fearless and a little rude, but are charming just the same.  I love to watch them do their territorial dance, mimicking each other’s moves until one of them prevails without any physical contact or actual fighting.  The biggest auditory tricksters of them all, the Mockingbirds have fooled me many times into thinking I heard another bird.  In searching out the sound, though, I’ve come upon them unafraid and curious about me.  I chirp and make noises at them and giggle when they chirp back.  Related to the Mockingbirds, the beautiful Brown Thashers have been the most difficult to detect.  They blend in so well, that I have to look for them out of the corner of my eye and wait to notice their movement on the ground.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher

 

 

From plane of light to plane, wings dipping through
Geometries and orchids that the sunset builds,
Out of the peak’s black angularity of shadow, riding
The last tumultuous avalanche of
Light above pines and the guttural gorge,
The hawk comes
~Robert Penn Warren

 

Then there are the Raptors.  We love to take drives out on the country roads around here and have seen Swallow-Tailed Kites doing acrobatics around a Live Oak Tree.  The Turkey Vultures, while ominous in appearance, soar high above with their rocking, drunken-like flight looking for something to eat.  The Kite and Vulture are the biggest birds I’ve ever seen with wingspans of four to five feet!  The Red-Shouldered Hawks are found often in town and I’ve seen them many times alight on a tree or utility pole right in front of me.

Swallow-Tailed Kite

Swallow-Tailed Kite

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-Shouldered Hawk

When cats run home and light is come,
And dew is cold upon the ground,
And the far-off stream is dumb,
And the whirring sail goes round,
And the whirring sail goes round;
Alone and warming his five wits,
The white owl in the belfry sits.
When merry milkmaids click the latch,
And rarely smells the new-mown hay,
And the cock hath sung beneath the thatch
Twice or thrice his roundelay,
Twice or thrice his roundelay;
Alone and warming his five wits,
The white owl in the belfry sits.
~ Alfred Lord Tennyson

My day is now marked by the Birds I encounter.  Our day starts around 5:30am every morning and the Cardinals are usually the first to start singing.  As I drive to work, I see and hear the Wrens and Mockingbirds.  Midday is marked by the Blue Jays, Woodpeckers, Catbirds and all the rest.  At dusk, the Mourning Doves are heard throughout our neighborhood making their forlorn cooing sound.  In the middle of the night, we are often roused from sleep by the sounds of Owls conversing in the tree outside our bedroom window.  These Birds have awakened something in me – a renewed perception of my surroundings; an ability to see the microcosm that is existing alongside my own reality.  And what has this done for me?  It’s made me more patient; it’s made my meditation practices come more easily; it’s helped me be more mindful in general of my surroundings; and I’m sure many other things that I don’t even realize.  It feels like I’ve been allowed to look through a secret peephole to another world and sometimes even get to step through to commune with the Birds.

3 thoughts on “The Secret Bird Society

  1. One o my favorite parts of spring is when it gets warm enough that I can have the window open while I sleep. That way, I wake up and I can hear the birds starting their days as well.
    There have also been some vultures who have moved into my neighborhood in the past year. I also swear I once saw a kestrel while walking around. Should I make the movie out west. I will miss having the wildness so close to me.

    -Soli

  2. Beautiful, Sara. We first encountered Sandhill Cranes in Roswell NM. They were coming down to the refuges set up for them in southern New Mexico. We were setting up our trailer and heard an unusual sound. I was the one to figure out it was overhead – three flocks were coming together; it was as if they were discussing where to land. The refuge was about 5 miles from us. We became fans of the Cranes. There’s an urban open space that is sown with sorghum and millet just for them. And one can see them very close there. That may be the only thing I miss due to leaving NM. Thank you for including the sound we love so much.

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