Birds


Backyard cardinal

It’s a hot and sunny day, with clear skies, so J and I are hoping to see Comet NEOWISE tonight, either in our backyard, which is fringed with trees, or at the neighborhood Little League field, which provides a broad, less obstructed view.

In advance of sundown, I’ve gotten my binoculars out, and in doing so, I realize I can’t remember the last time I used them, which is a shame since they are a nice set of optics–Nikon Monarchs–with a pleasing heft in the hand.

Birding is something I used to enjoy, which is to say it is something I enjoyed when I made time for it. There is a hushed expectancy that birding inspires–you train yourself to be quiet and attentive, honed to notice anything that looks or sounds usual.

This watchful demeanor is something birding and meditation share–both require you to intentionally focus your attention. When I used to go on Brookline Bird Club bird walks at Mount Auburn Cemetery, I’d practice the art of selective attention, peeling back the layers of conversation among the birders around me to focus on the faint chirps and whistles in the background, like removing a song’s vocal track to focus on the bass line.

When you go birding, you aren’t necessarily looking for any particular bird–or at least, I’ve never had much luck looking for and then finding a specific species. Instead, you keep your eyes and ears open for anything that seems different from the norm–a sound that doesn’t match the ambient noise, or a movement that runs counter to the usual grain.

In this sense, birding is as much about looking for clues as it is about hunting down specific species–or at least, that is how it usually works for me. The most interesting things I find are usually the things that appear by accident or surprise, like an unexpected eruption of mushrooms after summer storms.

This is why looking for wildflowers underfoot is a great accompaniment for listening to birds overheard. While you occupy your fidgety mind with one thing, you create an expectant opening for something else to appear.

Reflected

Several weeks ago, on my way home from a medical appointment in Chestnut Hill, I stopped at Hammond Pond to snap a few pictures of the mute swans there. Hammond Pond sits directly behind a busy shopping complex and directly abuts a parking lot. The mute swans don’t seem to care, however. They just mind their own business, paddling and dabbling in the calm water while busy humans like me zip and hurry past.

Immature Cooper's hawk

On Friday afternoon while I was out running my usual weekly errands, I saw an immature Cooper’s hawk perched on the lattice outside Eastern Bank on Commonwealth Avenue. I was at the gas station next door, so I got out of my car, took several pictures, walked over to the bank and took several more, then returned to my car to pump gas before driving away.

Immature Cooper's hawk

During the five minutes or so I was walking around a bank obviously taking pictures, not only did nobody ask what I was doing, nobody even acknowledged my presence. I had, in other words, reached peak invisibility as a Middle-Aged White Woman. Had I been a black- or brown-skinned man taking pictures outside a bank on a Friday night, how long would it have taken for someone to report my suspicious behavior?

Immature Cooper's hawk

I remember taking pictures once on a side street near MIT’s nuclear engineering labs. The buildings look unremarkable from the outside but presumably contain sensitive research inside. I was crouched on the sidewalk photographing an interestingly-angled shadow when a campus security vehicle pulled up and an officer gruffly asked through a lowered window what exactly I was doing.

Filler 'er up

I straightened up and offered some feeble explanation about noticing an interesting shadow on the sidewalk, but it was immediately clear it didn’t matter what I said. The officer simply chuckled and good-naturedly told me to Carry On, his entire demeanor changing the moment he saw I was the most (presumably) harmless of creatures, a Middle-Aged White Woman.

Peekaboo

I know the suspicion that awaits black- and brown-skinned folks who commit the crime of birding while black. Cameras and binoculars are tools of surveillance: threatening in the “wrong” hands, but innocuous if those hands are older and whiter. In broad daylight on a Friday afternoon in suburban Boston, a sharp-clawed killer was perched in plain sight, but nobody noticed him or the presumably harmless individual who both spied and shot him. “If you see something, say something” is the motto of the age of homeland insecurity, but what happens when your preconceived notions knit a veil of blindness right over your eyes?

Lenten rose

Yesterday morning, I heard the first phoebe of spring, and as I write these words, I have one window open to let in fresh air and the sound of soft rains.

Glory of the snow

This is how spring arrives in New England. One wet day you decide your rain shoes will suffice instead of rubber boots, you shed your coat then your jacket in turn, and you realize all of a sudden that long sleeves are too warm and short sleeves are just right. I haven’t worn sandals yet this year; so far, the weather has been too indecisive. Yesterday was almost warm enough but a bit too breezy; today was briefly sunny until the rains came.

Red maple flower buds. #signsofspring

But the phoebes know which way the earth has tilted. The song of the Eastern phoebe is unremarkable–nothing more than their name repeated, incessantly–so it is easy to overlook among the whistling cardinals and warbling house finches. But when you hear the first phoebe of spring calling in the distance–like a rainbow, the first phoebe always seems far off, its actual location hidden in a shrubby suburban tangle–your heart thrills, not because it is a beautiful song but because it comes only when winter is almost over and spring has almost come.

Red-bellied woodpecker

I’ve been seeing one or more male red-bellied woodpeckers nearly every time I walk the dog these days: either several birds are staking territorial claims on several different side streets, or one bird has been faithfully following me.

Woodpeckers look funny from below

Red-bellied woodpeckers are large and vocal: it’s hard not to see them once you recognize their call and take the time to look for them. And right now, the male red-bellies in our neighborhood are perching on dead snags, excavating holes, and calling: almost begging to be seen. Although I can identify red-bellied woodpeckers by eye and ear, I’m realizing how little I know about their lives. Why am I only seeing male red-bellies right now, for example? Are the females just as plentiful as the males, but quieter? And are red-bellied woodpeckers conspicuously abundant every March, and this is the first year I’ve actually noticed them?

Red-bellied woodpecker

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s account of red-bellied woodpecker behavior, “When nesting, males choose the site and begin to excavate, then try to attract a female by calling and tapping softly on the wood around or in the cavity.” So apparently the calling males I’ve seen around our neighborhood are trying to attract mates to the nest holes they’ve begun to excavate. Now that I know the general areas where several male red-bellies are looking to nest, it’s likely I’ll see them in the same spots for years to come, as “The same pair may nest in the same tree year after year, but typically excavate a new cavity each year, often placing the new one beneath the previous year’s.”

Apparently, red-bellied woodpeckers have been calling, tapping, and nesting in our neighborhood for years, and I’m only now paying attention. What other creatures have led their not-so-secret lives while I’ve been hurrying around, unaware?

Puffed and strutting

Yesterday morning as I left for campus, there was a throng of tom turkeys strutting and puffing in the street at the end of our driveway. When I was a bird-obsessed kid growing up in central Ohio, wild turkeys were wild and rare: something to be seen in the deep and distant woods, if at all. You could see deer in the suburban outskirts of the city–nearly any grassy field would attract them at twilight–but turkeys were creatures of deep wilderness, as secretive as bears.

Turkey trot

I still haven’t gotten used to the ubiquity of wild turkeys in the Boston suburbs. They are almost as prevalent as rabbits and infinitely easier to see than raccoons or opossums. Turkeys are widespread here–in winter, we frequently see small flocks strolling down streets and sidewalks; in summer, we see hens singly or in pairs leading straggling lines of poults through our backyard; and in October, we see roving gangs of tom turkeys fluffing their plumage and fanning their tails, practicing on one another the displays intended to impress females.

Quartet

These birds aren’t shy; they don’t need to be. Suburban turkeys are large and savvy: they know dogs are leashed or contained behind fences, and coyotes are elusive and largely nocturnal. This leaves turkeys to rule the backyards of Newton, Brookline, and Cambridge: yardbirds with a stately strut and little need to lurk or skulk. Until Thanksgiving at least, the not-so-wild turkeys of suburban Boston have no need for secrecy.

Male hairy woodpecker

When I pulled into the faculty parking lot at Curry College this morning, I wasn’t surprised to see a male hairy woodpecker clinging to a nearby tree, as last week I’d seen the holes he’d hammered. Sometimes birds reveal themselves directly, and other times they reveal themselves by what they leave behind.

Here be woodpeckers

This particular hairy woodpecker wasn’t shy, continuing to cling to his tree while I rolled down my car window and took a picture from the driver seat, using my car as an impromptu bird-blind. (I can tell this fellow is a male by the red spot on the back of his head, and I can tell he’s a hairy rather than downy woodpecker because his bill is as long as his head is wide: a downy’s bill isn’t nearly as long.)

Only after I’d gotten out of my car did the woodpecker startle and fly, scolding me with emphatic call-notes: “Peeeek! Peeeek!” Now that I know who’s been drilling the trees by the faculty parking lot at Curry College, you can be sure I’ll be on the lookout for him and his mate.

Great Blue Hill

I got stuck in traffic on my way to Curry College this morning, so while I sat in my car on Interstate 93 waiting to exit onto Route 138 in Canton, I shot a handful of photos of the dusting of new snow on nearby evergreens as well as the snowy summit of Great Blue Hill: a landmark I pass every time I drive to Curry, but I seldom slow down and study.

Frosted

Years ago when I lived in Randolph, I used to regularly climb to the summit of Great Blue Hill, parking at the Trailside Museum and taking the Red Dot trail to Eliot Tower and beyond. Eliot Tower affords good views of Boston, and if you continue further on the Skyline Trail, the views are even better, the wind-swept patches of exposed granite making you feel as if you were atop a mountain rather than a hill.

Just a dusting

In the summer, I’d hear prairie warblers singing atop Great Blue Hill, as the short, scrubby trees there are their preferred habitat. Prairie warblers have a distinctive buzzy song that ascends the chromatic scale: a song I’ve never heard anywhere else and thus associate exclusively with Great Blue Hill.

How far the mind can wander while one’s body is stuck in traffic, thoughts ascending up the chromatic scale like a brilliant buzzing bird.

White-breasted nuthatch

Yesterday there was a white-breasted nuthatch perched in one of our backyard trees, motionless and fluffed against the cold. I was unloading bags of ice melt I’d bought in advance of our latest storm, and the nuthatch was clearly watching me: not moving, just softly tooting as if talking to himself.

Nuthatch closeup

I got my camera out of my purse to take a picture, and the nuthatch didn’t move. I took a few zoomed-in pictures, and the nuthatch didn’t move, so I stepped in closer and took more photos–and still, the nuthatch didn’t move. I eventually returned to unpacking the car, and the nuthatch eventually flew away, off to do his birdy business. But for a few expectant moments, that nuthatch and I shared a face-to-face encounter: Hello, whatcha doing?

Technicolor hippies

As I type these words, a rafter of wild turkeys is scratching for seed beneath our backyard birdfeeder: two hens and their combined offspring, a true Boston marriage. We didn’t see much of our resident turkeys in the spring and early summer, when the hens were incubating eggs, but now that the poults are leggy and ravenous, we’ve seen them and their mothers more frequently.

Fantastic 'fro

The other day, J and I saw a small group of tom turkeys crossing a side street about a half mile from our house, one striding slowly in front of the other like the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. This is how turkeys live in August: the females band together to shepherd their combined young, and the males hang out singly or in loose-knit throngs, fattening up for breeding season. It’s a strict division of labor where the females look after the poults and the males do little more than strut and breed.

Birth-control pill chastity belt

A week or so ago, J and I watched an episode of the CNN documentary The Sixties that discussed the women’s movement. The episode discussed the advent of the birth control pill, Gloria Steinem’s stint as a Playboy Bunny, and the one-two punch of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. Once you acknowledge that some housewives are unhappy tending children and doing housework and some women are enjoying sex outside the bonds of marriage, you’ve crossed a revolutionary divide. Everything is possible between the sexes because everything has been called into question.

Eclectic

A strict division of labor between tom and hen turkeys has worked for eons: just look how many turkeys there are! But human beings aren’t turkeys. We no longer live as hunter-gatherers, when it made sense for larger, stronger males to pursue large game while bands of women gathered nuts and berries, their babies and children in tow.

His and hers

Nearly all of today’s jobs can be accomplished by either gender, and the job of gathering groceries knows no sex. This means each household is free to divide chores however works best for them, individually. In our home, J does yard work and cooks, and I do dishes, take out the trash, and shop for groceries. J and I don’t divide these chores by gender; instead, we’ve settled upon a routine that works for us, and we don’t expect that routine to be universally applicable to other couples. We’re talking about conscious choices, not binding cultural rules.

Braids

I don’t know if male and female turkeys are content with their lots in life: I suspect turkeys live the way they do because they don’t have much choice. Does an abundance of choice make us humans more or less happy in the long run? That’s a question for philosophers to decide. All I know is that once a choice is offered, you can’t take it back. Once you know other options are available, you’ll always want the freedom to choose between them.

Since I don’t have any decent photos of turkey hens and poults that have been visiting our backyard bird feeder, the photos illustrating today’s post come from last summer’s groovy MFA exhibit of sixties clothing, Hippie Chic, which I blogged last December.

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