On a recent cold January day, a small bird alighted on the tip of a nearby spruce tree. It was light gray-brown. It had a slightly angled tail — like a wren’s.
A wren? In January? I checked my “Birds of Illinois” field guide. The closest possibility seemed a “winter wren,” but I hadn’t heard any sound, much less a “bubbly, melodious, tinkling series of notes.” Another possibility was the female “orange-crowned warbler,” but the guide said it was “a very rare winter resident.”
I did, however, continue perusing the book. And I thought about two previous — and interestingly dramatic — bird incidents I had witnessed from my house. Both involved birds I could definitely identify. Both made me laugh.
At first I was delighted when distracted by a spurt of red in the window well outside my basement office. It was a male cardinal clacking and pecking upon the glass just above my desk. I had only to lift my head to observe him.
“I know what you want!” I told him. “Lucille Wilson prepared me for you!”
I recalled a bird-loving neighbor who enjoyed telling about the cardinal that tapped at her kitchen sink window one winter. She interpreted that he wanted food from her. She took sunflower seeds and suet to a feeder in the backyard. Mr. Redbird followed her (around the house; yes, I witnessed this) and consumed. He kept this up regularly. In the spring, he disappeared.
So, I went to the supply of birdseed for our feeder. I took a large handful of sunflower seeds that cardinals prefer.
“Come and get it!” I called. “You’re a feathered bandit with your black mask. Should I call you The Lone Ranger?”
I dumped the seeds in the window well where I could watch him dine.
He utterly amazed me. He returned to the well but ignored the seeds! He continued tapping on my window — angrily, I thought. Within minutes, squirrels appeared and methodically gobbled away. Hungry little sparrows got wind of the feast and darted in to snatch what the squirrels flicked away in their greedy haste.
For about a month, this was the pattern. I provided, he ignored. He pecked and clacked on the window. He flapped feathered patterns on the glass and smeared them with dust. My family and I were puzzled. The squirrels, of course, frisked their tails with glee.
I gradually decreased the seeds. His fury and his presence gradually decreased — but not before I, teacher of American literature, pondered, “Is this bird my Raven (albeit red) to leave my basement window nevermore!?”
The second bird drama occurred one mid-summer, starting July 9 exactly. I started keeping a log after observing (again from my office window) a robin agitating the dark green leaves of the backyard oak, presumably starting a nest.
The next day, the visibly awkward, angled twigs just didn’t satisfy her. She made a second daring try by starting on the larger branch beneath. She connected it with the first to conclude in twigs hanging in mid-air like a waterfall. By that evening, it splashed, static, on the lawn below, reminding me of an angry squirrel’s mess.
On July 10, she pecked all morning long beneath the tree on a square of grayish plastic probably taken from somebody’s ill-packed trash. On July 12, she managed to extend the concoction four branches high! I noted a male watching from a yew, but he didn’t help. A rain squall turned it all into sodden kelp.
If she was discouraged, she got over it. On July 14, she started afresh to mend and add. I went outside to hang laundry on the line. She didn’t mind my proximity. I looked directly up and noted soft, whitish splotches on her breast — the marks of a very young bird!
Was she too young for instinct to shape her craft? Or was she rather some precocious bird — the Wren, the Wright, the Fuller of her kind?
She worked less and less with no success. By July 20, she was gone for good. Had I not seen those splotches on her breast, I’d call it “diddling” what she did. Having seen, I redefine her mess as “Four Twigged Mobiles” by Robin.
Do my bird memories lead to additional reflection? The angry cardinal is still a puzzle. But the robin’s tale is clearly “A Metaphor for Writers.” Or any endeavor really. Take your pick.