The bird has flown its nest and it is free to fly the skies of the world.
The birds are gone. Well, most of the songbirds, anyway.
I’m surprised how sad this makes me.
This is the first summer I’ve taken an interest in any migratory birds other than the tree swallows who nest in the box on my yard fence and the hummingbirds that come to the feeder I set outside my kitchen window.
In the past I paid more attention to the big, more obvious and “muscular” birds: ravens, sandhill cranes, red-tailed hawks and owls. Occasionally I’d marvel at a flash of color – a mountain bluebird, a goldfinch – but a deeper interest in the seasonal, smaller songbirds had yet to spark.
So why now, this year?
I’m sure age has something to do with it. Cliché, maybe, but the youthful rush to “see it all” has gentled into the hush of paying close attention to what is right in front of me. Moving to the mountains of Idaho in 2005, a quiet and rural space at the edge of a 2.3-million-acre national forest, put me in close proximity to nature and wildlife with sufficient time and peaceful quiet to observe it. With each passing year I learn more, and realize how much more I have to learn.
But, of course, this is the year of the pandemic. We’ll always remember 2020, mostly for bad things. My introverted and loner lifestyle hasn’t changed much or been too inconvenienced, but in the extra (and welcome) quiet of the world around me I’ve gained clarity as to what’s important to me, how I want to spend my time going forward.
I want to continue being a close observer of the natural world, here in my little piece of it, and write about it.
In other words, I’m a naturalist.
A label, yes, but one that fits me.
Especially after interacting with a female red-winged blackbird preparing for her migration journey.
What is naturalism? Who is a naturalist?
This excerpt from an interview with Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist, explains naturalism better than I ever could, and helped me realize why proclaiming myself an agnostic, then atheist, for most of my life, never felt quite right.
“Atheism is a reaction against theism. It is purely a rejection of an idea. It’s not a positive substantive idea about how the world is. Naturalism is a counterpart to theism. Theism says there’s the physical world and god. Naturalism says there’s only the natural world. There are no spirits, no deities, or anything else. …I’m saying that despite appearances to the contrary in our everyday life, this world we live in is governed by laws that don’t have goals or purpose that are not sustained by anything outside the world. It is just stuff obeying the laws of physics over and over again. …Naturalism says that we were not put here for any purpose. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t such thing as purpose. It just means that purpose isn’t imposed from outside. We human beings have the creative ability to give our lives purposes and meanings. Just as we have the ability to determine what is right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. That point of view is not only allowed, it is challenging and breathtaking in its scope.” Sean Carroll, from a May 2016 interview with Wired about his book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself.
I attended confirmation classes at a friend’s Lutheran church in my teens, but that was just a way to meet boys. I was married in that same Lutheran church at age eighteen, but only because my intended’s very Catholic mother insisted on a church wedding. Our divorce two years later was a civil affair, no church involved, until a few months later when I was asked to sign annulment papers. Viola, the marriage never happened, at least in the eyes of the Catholic church.
I’ve never been religious. I’ve studied various religions as a history major in college and later, as someone interested in world affairs trying to understand events. Those studies turned me away from, rather than toward, religion. I saw the terrible harm caused in the name of various gods and religions and was appalled.
I don’t believe in a deity, nor have I ever felt a need or wish to. (I joke I was clearly born without the God gene.) And, frankly, I grow wearier every day with those who do believe and assume that everyone else surely believes the same as they do, constantly tossing their religious faith into their speech and writing (e.g. “Isn’t God’s handwork awesome?” as a comment to a photograph; “It’s God’s will” or “God will provide” when confronted with natural disasters or trying to comfort someone in despair). Politicians and government representatives, from local level to national, ending every speech with “God bless America” (or insert various countries) set my teeth on edge. Every time.
If you want and need religion, have at it. Just don’t assume I feel the same and please, keep it to yourself and those you know for certain share your beliefs.
When I realized that my inclination to study the natural world around me was an approach to the world that avoided religion altogether, one that also had a name – naturalism – I knew I had found my tribe.
Now, back to songbirds and my latest natural world fascination.
I bought a book on Idaho birds to help me with identifications. I downloaded and started using Cornell’s Merlin and BirdNet apps. As spring and summer progressed, I was having fun watching the songbirds flitting about my yard, identifying them. Some are incredibly colorful; others have beautiful songs. I learned that one songbird sings just before first light, while other types wait until just after first light, creating a loud, joyous chorus. In June and July, civil twilight arrives just after 5:00 am where I live. Sometimes the songfest is so loud I have to close my windows between midnight and 3:00 am so that I might sleep in.
But fall comes early in Idaho’s mountains. By mid-August, most of the song birds had already started their migrations south. Mornings were suddenly much quieter. The tree swallows seemed to depart first, then tanagers, mountain bluebirds, and house wrens all skedaddled. Robins and red-winged blackbirds were all that remained as September arrived, and now it’s just the red-wingeds. And grasshoppers. Lots of grasshoppers, their own songs helping usher the sun below the horizon every evening.
Because most of the migratory birds had departed, when one or two showed up in my yard in late August, I noticed. I grabbed my phone and tried to get photos.
Over several afternoons I noticed one brown bird, slightly smaller than a robin, feeding in my yard and sometimes resting on my fence rail as she spied bugs in the grass. I think she was a red-winged blackbird female. They’re “plain” compared to their male counterparts, but have an interesting combination of mostly brown feathers with black accents. Maybe she was part of this year’s hatch, young and inquisitive, slow to leave the only world she’s known for migration to parts unknown. I spent some time trying to identify her, because usually I only see the red-wingeds down in the valley, a couple miles away where irrigation ditches provide them the water and marshy vegetation they prefer. To see a solitary one in my yard was…unusual.
As I watched her over the span of a few days, I took several photos from my deck or through my office window. She let me get quite close, unnaturally so. I came to believe that this particular female was making a point of observing me, maybe even saying goodbye before migrating. Her behavior was odd, compared to all the other songbirds. She would sit on the fence rail, remaining in place for the longest times, close to where I was on the deck or in the yard hanging with the boys. She let me approach close for photos and videos. She didn’t startle easily or show the usual flightiness I’ve come to expect from red-winged blackbirds during walks in the valley.
Do I know for sure it was the same female each day? No. But her behavior was so unique, I think it was.
There weren’t any other red-winged blackbirds around, male or female, until the last day I saw her when another female joined her in the yard. Later that day, I watched her from my office window – just beyond my computer monitor – as she moved from the fence rail down onto the lawn to pick at bugs for food, then back onto the rail, her friend nearby. She watched me watching her between feedings.
Then she flew up onto an section of my roof that allowed her to look down at me through my office window. Eyes are amazing things. We know when direct eye contact is made, whether with another human or with an animal. It’s like a mild electric charge. I see you. I knew she and I were making eye contact, frequently. A friend joined her on the roof, but quickly departed.
I took more photos, then set my phone aside and returned to my work on my computer. Suddenly, she flew right up to my window, put her toes into the screen on the outside of the closed window and latched on there for about three seconds – staring right at me as I stared back in shock and wonder, just three feet away– before she flew off. No time for a photo.
When I finally exhaled, I smiled. Big time. What a gift! She came as close as she could and looked right at me!
I never saw her again.
I took that boldness on her part as her way of saying, “Bye. Be well. See you next year.”
And maybe a thank you for keeping my lawn green and full of bugs so late in the summer when she needed to fatten up before her journey south.
Go ahead. Call me the crazy bird lady. I don’t mind. Because I know, in my heart of hearts, that the beautiful red-winged blackbird female and I had a communal relationship. Brief, yes, but no less wonderful and important, at least to me.
No gods involved. Just her, me, and nature.
Feature image: my red-winged blackbird friend on the fence rail, August 17, 2020.