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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

BIRDS OF A FEATHER, by Caroline Sutton

photo of child looking through colorful toy binoculars

Birds of a feather flock together.

My mother used to always say this to us as we ran across the lawn in the summer, spreading our wings (arms) and flying across the grass… jumping over the sprinkler and carrying on until we came to the small hill in our backyard that was my 'lift off' spot and I'd spring off soaring down with arms outstretched until I landed thunk at the bottom as us human birds are apt to do. Gravity always prevails, even in children's imagination. But oh, how I wished in those days of my youth, that I was a bird.

Birds have always been the most magical of creatures to me. The vast expanse of wing, that folds up so neatly until needed. Those small bodies, so unlike other mammals, with a beak instead of a mouth and feathers instead of hair. They are fascinating. To look in the eye of a bird is to know that it has seen things that you will never see…. felt the breath of clouds on its wings and pierced the rays of sunlight before those rays reached the ground. They trill a whole orchestra of sounds that are distinctive to their type – sometimes musical… sometimes just plain loud! Or aggressive … or squawkingly annoying. But they communicate - and if you've ever had a parrot sit on your shoulder you realize how much they communicate if they choose.

When my mother used to comment on how my sister and I 'flocked together' she did it with a smile in her eye. Because growing up as the oldest sister made me the leader. Everything I did, my sister did too. Today, as adults, my sister and I are nothing alike and we live far apart. But we share stories back and forth across the miles and we laugh a lot on the phone. She, in fact, has a pet bird named Chili - a black capped conure - who sits on her shoulder and flaps around her apartment. He is the merriest little friend, always singing and repeating words and stunningly pretty. He chirps into the phone sometimes to say hi to me (yup) and I get the occasional iphone picture of him doing something astounding. My nephew with wings.

My flock is larger than hers and composed of human children, who have grown into bird lovers in their own rite. We've wandered through many a bird related adventure over the years – from hand feeding baby robins before returning them(successfully ) to their parents…. to sitting quietly for an hour so I could capture a picture of a chickadee on my sons hand. When we moved to Ann Arbor 7 years ago, my husband – who knows my passion for feathered creatures- went out and bought me a book about Michigan bird watching and we've studied it frequently to learn the names of birds that visit our yard. Our first winter here, when we didn't quite know what to do with ourselves (we'd just moved from California and we had no mittens, no boots, and a newborn), we sat by the window and spent hours watching the birds come to the feeders we'd set out along our deck and in the trees. It was, in a single word, magic.

Now, having been here a number of years and grown accustomed to the flocks that fly overhead and the ducks that waddle through our backyard, we've sorted our lives according to the seasonal visits of some of our feathered visitors . In June we eagerly await the cedar waxwings, and in October I keep my eyes open for the cardinals that live in our back pine tree all winter. In April a family of Mallard ducks come for a week and splash around in the small puddles of water that collect from melted snow in the back yard. It's as if they are vacationing before they drift off to a larger pond to build their nest and lay their eggs.

Often, on Sunday mornings early and crisp, my flock and I will flap to the trails of Ann Arbor - we particularly like Nichols Arboretum and that long well walked path along the Huron River. The four kids like to run the path until they get to the steps that lead us all up up up to the shade of the pine grove and mini fairy garden and then peony garden which blooms brilliantly in late May / early June. While they are all running along, my husband and I walk slowly and I keep my eyes peeled for songbirds and raptors - we've seen owls and hawks, Herons and Hummingbirds, Warblers and Thrush.

It surprised me, when we moved to Michigan, that I could become so mesmerized by bird sightings. As I sit at the playground while my children play tag, I'm gazing at the Sand Hill crane that has landed in the marsh not 20 feet away from me. As I drive down Washtenaw Avenue I gasp and have to pull over so we can all stare at three turkey vultures sitting on a sign post by the side of the road. The kids and I keep a running tally of types of birds we've spied over the years in unusual places. The hawk perched on our deck railing two years ago was stunning. But the kids are just as entranced by the doves dancing across the railing and cooing their soft lullaby sounds on early May mornings.

Ann Arbor has become so many things to us, but the beauty of nature constantly within our vision is its most powerful allure. Stopping to let a turtle cross the street. Seeing a family of deer feeding in the woods by the road. Listening to coyotes howling on quiet autumn nights. We take none of this for granted.

Meanwhile, my youngest, my four year old – she wants to be a bird – as I did when I was her age. She likes to pretend she has feathers and hoots like an owl. She runs across the yard with arms outstretched, flapping and pretending to lift off. She wants to see birds up close and talk to them. Outside on our deck she'll sing to them all and put out birdseed. On occasional days we go to the Leslie Science and Nature Center and watch them feed the raptors – today we learned what the Barn Owl eats and watched the Peregrine Falcon spread its sharp talons on its perch thinking about what it would be like if those talons slammed into your arm. Ouch! As we turned to leave, the Bald Eagle screeched loudly and spread its wings until its full wing span was splayed out across its enclosure. My daughter screeched back and spread her 'wings' out in response. It was a moment – the two of them looking intently at each other and, seemingly, communicating.

And why not? Perhaps this is what attracts us, what attracts my daughter to the feathered world. The song and sound and communicating that goes on constantly, naturally. A flock of crows is not so unlike a playground full of 6 year olds… all leaping and shouting and diving and gasping and waving of arms and wings.

I watched them and considered those oft used words of my mother. Birds of a feather may flock together. It's true. But 'birds' of different feathers can flock together too sometimes, especially if you are willing to spread your wings once in awhile and attempt lift off.


posted by John Hilton at 1:55 p.m. | 0 comments


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