Domestic Bantam Chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus); Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus); European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris); House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus); American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis ); Barn Owl (Tyto alba).
I love birds. I also hate birds. And therein you catch the gist of my fickle life. I have a similarly convoluted love/hate relationship with most things in my life: with men, school, writing, work, summer, cars, winter, men, sports, dancing. And men. Did I mention men? I love and hate them the most.
This fickleness took root long, long ago.
Flash back (way back) to one un-Godly cold winter during the dark ages on the farm in Wyoming. We all suffered, but it was the livestock that suffered the most. Sure, my little boy fingers and toes got cold, maybe even numb, when I was sent outside to complete my winter chores – glorious tasks like chopping a hole in the foot-thick ice of the water trough so the horses could have a drink. But at least I had a warm house to retreat to when my work was done. The livestock? Not so much. Barns on a poor, mid-century family farm were unheated.
My unofficial definition of un-Godly cold is when the thermometer doesn’t budge above minus ten ˚F for at least two weeks. Such was the case that particular winter. That arctic blast was enough to send anyone and anything to that dangerous dreamland called hypothermia. That cold wreaked havoc across the farm, laid a frozen bony hand on everything in its path. The cattle and horses shivered through, visibly miserable and coated in hoarfrost, but surviving. The large animals were fairly amazing in that respect.
It was our small flock of barnyard chickens that were truly traumatized. They were not bright enough to find ways to keep warm. They might have burrowed into straw like the rabbits, or slept crisscrossed and stacked together in a pile, harvesting each other’s body heat like the pigs, or even snuggled up next to a resting cow like the sheep. But the chickens, with their pea-sized brains, didn’t do any of these. They instinctively and habitually roosted in solitary slumber on the top of stall walls and among the rafters of the barn, suspended in the midnight air where they were particularly susceptible to the extreme elements.
One brown bantam hen that was no bigger than a softball was forever altered during that winter of our discontent. The poor thing’s exposed feet froze solidly. When the cold snap finally broke and her little toes thawed, they simply fell off. She was left with two stubs, the scaly chopsticks of her lower legs which, minus her feet, were entirely useless for walking.
Despite the objections of my father, who I believe saw chicken soup on the menu, I nursed the little hen back to health. Mobility proved to be difficult, but she was a fighter. Over the course of the following spring and summer, with practice and repetition, her wing muscles strengthened and eventually she was able to fly for short distances – no small feat for a domestic chicken; they are typically flightless.
When this little hen with the big heart wanted to go somewhere to handle her pressing chicken business, she would begin flopping along the ground on those two stubs, flapping her wings madly until finally she became airborne. Her takeoffs reminded me of the National Geographic movies where the tiny propeller plane deep in the Alaskan interior bounces along the rough terrain until it eventually catches its wind and lifts off, veering left into the sunset. The hen, though, had no flight control. Veering in any direction was a problem. Once airborne, the struggling creature would do her best to steer but the results were mostly catastrophic. She lived a random life, for certain, most often ending up catch-as-catch-can wherever the winds deposited her.
Another problem for the little-hen-that-could was that she had no landing gear. Every flight ended in a tumble, an ass-end-over-teakettle roll. We appropriately began to refer to her as the Cannonball, and the name stuck. After every tumultuous landing, Cannonball would smooth her ruffled feathers and pretend that she had landed gracefully, exactly where she intended to land, and then go about some made-up-on-the-spot chicken business.
That little hen was hell-bent on overcoming any disability the un-God handed her. She was an inspiration to all of us and we grew increasingly enamored of her as time went by. We adored her tenacity and, indeed, she became a slight celebrity in our small farming community. She had her photo published in the Basin Republican Rustler (front page!) and she even won a ribbon at the Big Horn County Fair, a sort of Miss Congeniality award for the sweet, disabled hen.
Isn’t bird love grand? Now comes the hate part.
While Cannonball was living the spotlighted life of a feathered starlet, her more pedestrian foot-enabled sisters and brothers were systematically and thoroughly uprooting and eating every single seedling from my garden. Carrots, radishes, corn, squash, watermelon, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra: all plucked in infancy, row by row.
At that point, it was my turn to see chicken soup on the menu.
I loved that little bantam hen, but for an entire summer I hated the rest of that garden-gobbling flock. And for the remainder of my life, it is as though I have been precariously balanced on a karmic bird teeter-totter. For every good bird, there has been an evil bird. For every good bird deed, there has been an equal and opposite evil bird deed. But it’s not limited to birds. This love/hate, good/bad dichotomy extends to all aspects of my life. For every good boss, there has been a moron with a mean streak. For every task that comes easily and gives pleasure, there has been something tortuous and painful that must be finished. For every good man, there has been a self-centered jerk (most of whom I have referred to as “boyfriend” at one time or another).
Years after the days of Cannonball, far too many years for me to comfortably divulge, I randomly ended up in California’s Bay Area when the former Mr. Perfect was transferred there for work. I alighted in the suburbs on the “other side” of the Oakland Hills, an ass-end-over-teakettle landing rather like the little hen – she and I both lived a life wherein we were primarily deposited by the winds of fate. Still, I quite liked the location despite a slowly deteriorating relationship. My life was off-center, but my garden was beautiful.
While living in Northern California, I had to have a sinus surgery. No, Honey…not from all the cocaine I’d done. I wish. I think I wish, anyway – it certainly would make for a more dramatic story. Alas, my surgery was to cut out polyps – nasty pendulous sinus growths that must be removed by scalpel every seven or eight years. If you want to continue breathing, that is. I chose to continue breathing.
Here’s where I found myself post surgery: reduced to mouth-breathing as my hacked-up nasal passages were stuffed with cotton packing and God only knows what else, although whatever it was did feel hard and plastic, like maybe a child’s toy had accidentally gotten stuck in there. Dr. Handsome had ordered me to avoid lying prone for danger of 1) suffocating; 2) hemorrhaging and bleeding to death. Thus, I spent the week immediately after the slice-and-dice propped upright amongst pillows in an overstuffed brown leather armchair in the living room – twenty-four hours a day. The former Mr. Perfect deposited me there to fend for myself as he proceeded to go about his business – elsewhere. For me, it was shaping up to be the loneliest week of my life, my only companions being a stubborn pain and the pocketful of narcotics I had been handed at hospital checkout. On that first afternoon of living alone in the lounge chair, in my perfectly delirious narcotic daze, I began to hallucinate a flickering in the back patio lemon tree, visible through the living room window. Flicker, flicker, flicker. Blame the narcotics, but it was more than a few hours before I realized it was not me being delusional; there really was something flickering.
I forced myself to pay attention through the delicious narcotic high which fairly begged me to avoid reality and simply return to dreamy, dreamy sleepyville. Say what you will, but I refuse to apologize for loving that high. I earned it. In my acute state of sinus misery, narcotics were the very best buddy a Queen Gardener could have asked for. Still, I pushed them aside long enough to investigate what the infernal flickering was about. As the dope haze lifted, I realized it was a wildly painted orange and green Rufous hummingbird building her nest on a low-hanging branch of the lemon tree.
I named her Ruby.
Hummingbirds, I learned, weave their nest, tiny as a child’s teacup, out of small bits of plant matter, like moss and lichens and seed down and the tiniest flakes of bark and fluff, all stitched together with strands of spider’s web. That’s right, spider’s web. Stunning.
It took Ruby a few days to complete her nursery, during which she flickered back and forth, back and forth, adding this and that and then a tiny bit more of this. It was a slow process and I was half-way through my narcotic prescription before she had finished her masterpiece, the colorful baby crib securely tethered to a twig just beneath a large lemon leaf that later served as a rain umbrella and sun shade. Ruby knew what she was doing.
Maybe it was the drugs. Maybe it was just that I desperately wanted to feel less alone in my life. For whatever reason, that little bird became a source of light in those, my darkest hours. She was a tiny, pulsating beacon of positive energy. She emanated a pure, natural love and sense of purpose that flowed through me and sustained me as I recuperated. Writing this now, I realize that I come across a bit like a crazy old Queen Birder, but I honestly believe that I might have fallen into a significant narcotic and loneliness fueled depression had Ruby not kept me entertained with her lively, light energy.
Two days after she finished construction, there were two eggs. Fifteen days later, there were two naked baby hummingbirds that looked something like large, clumsy ants wiggling in the bottom of the nest. Three weeks later, the babies fledged. I, too, flew back to my normal and increasingly dysfunctional life, breathing restored. Also restored, though, was a basic faith in the healing power of nature. To this day, when faced with a dark moment, I try to remember Ruby sewing her beautiful nest and always when I do, things feel lighter. Wherever you are, Ruby, I love you and I thank you.
Not all nesting birds are as gracious or as giving.
In the first years of my District of Columbia inhabitation, before the distance between us grew irreconcilable, the former Mr. Perfect and I shared a miniscule second story loft condo in a turn-of-the-century brownstone. It was a cute, albeit tiny, historically significant home that included an upper-level step-out balcony, just enough space for me to be able to affirm that, indeed, I had a garden.
A male European starling chose to claim a nest site beneath a loose ceramic roof tile just above this tiny balcony. At first, I found it romantic, the way Mr. Starling perched on the corner of the pressed metal decorative railing and did his clown-like starling dance to attract potential Mrs. Starlings. So cute. I giggled as I watched him from behind a drawn blind, like a backwards Peeping Tom who peered out rather than in. I was happy for him when the one true Mrs. Starling showed up, and together they began building a nest. Happy, I was, until those little black monsters proceeded to tear every leaf off a baby orange tree, uprooted my Mexican sunflower seedlings, and pinched my baby marijuana plants off at ground level. What were these, DEA birds? My opinion of them was quickly souring.
Still, I thought, we are all co-inhabitants here on Planet Earth, and it is my duty to try to live with the newlyweds. I covered the replacement plant babies with chicken wire, but those lovebirds were as tenacious as the legless but determined Cannonball. They would not take no for an answer, going so far as to wrestle off the chicken wire in order to pinch off the second planting of sunflowers and marijuana seedlings.
My admiration for them was quickly morphing into something ugly, a process that replicates in my life with alarming frequency. With men as well as birds, history has proven me fickle. Sort of like those damn starlings, it is most often the very quality that attracts me to a man that ends up being the issue I finally hate the most about him: the infamous straw that breaks the camel’s back. Like a former Mr. Perfect who at first thrilled me with his silent independence. Later, it would come to feel like willful, ignoring negligence. Fickle, fickle me.
I won’t go into detail about the eventual disposition of Mr. and Mrs. Starling, those feathered fiends who had the nerve to repeatedly damage my plantings. Let it suffice for me to say that they were dealt with and in the new, starling-free world, my tiny balcony garden flourished. The orange tree and Mexican sunflowers and marijuana and I were all better off without them. But true to my fickle form, my bad experience with the pair of them doesn’t mean I always and automatically detest starlings. Far from it.
One of the most beautiful sights in the natural world is a starling murmuration, which occurs with regularity in the autumn months across the wide-open spaces of my Wyoming youth. Even though the starlings are year-round residents and do not migrate south for the winter, in the colder months they gather in huge flocks (perhaps to huddle together during the un-Godly cold spells). Come late afternoon, as the autumn sunset approaches, the flocks take to the air, twisting and turning like one living organism, painting a surreal image of suspended reality. It is a beautiful sight and not one easily forgotten. The magnificent swirling patterns of a murmuration mirror the unavoidable patterns of the cosmos. It is a fickle flush of feathers against a clear blue sky.
Birds can add to your gardening experience, or they can ruin it. You can love them, or you can hate them. One thing is for certain: if you have a garden, you will have birds. They may be there to help you, hauling away beak-loads of aphids or caterpillars or other harmful pests to feed a nest of hungry hatchlings. Or they may be there, as hummingbirds are, to pollinate your crop. Or your birds may be feathered demon spawn, showing up just in time to steal your blackberries, to swipe your carefully-laid seeds, to maliciously snip off your infant marijuana plants with scissor-sharp bills. Or, simply to shit with surprisingly good aim and a perverse sense of humor on your freshly washed car (a particular bane to my friend Carl).
You may invite them. Despite my whining and crying, I have never had a garden without a birdhouse. Earlier this spring, my bird condo was visited several days in a row by a charming pair of red-headed house finches. I kept my fingers crossed but they eventually decided on something with better rent. But not before they plucked the mandevilla vine clear of every single aphid.
Or, your birds may be squatters who insist that it is their garden, not yours.
You may love them, or you may hate them, or both. The two-sided, love it/hate it secret to living with birds, I believe, is to first embrace their lovely aspects – as does my friend Myke, who describes with childlike glee the hummingbirds and gold finches buzzing about his mountain garden, oblivious to the fact that it is his garden. Perhaps it is he who is oblivious about whose garden is whose. Secondly and just as importantly, you must either find creative ways to deal with the sometimes destructive nature of our avian friends, or make peace with it. Excepting Mr. and Mrs. Starling, I am a proponent of the latter. To do otherwise seems foolhardy. I have seen many a tree draped with tinsel and foil and huge fake plastic owls in the delusional hope that a handful of cherries can be saved. All to no avail, as I have also seen various birds collecting the tinsel to decorate their nests, or sitting atop the plastic owls in order to get a better vantage from which to pluck cherries. Real birds know a real owl from a fake owl, and rightfully so. My friend Matthew tells a harrowing story of a nighttime exchange between barn owls…a rasp followed by a whistle, answered first from one corner of his darkened back yard, then another. He was truly frightened, much more fear than a stationary plastic owl could ever generate. The birds know that difference as well.
As I grow old(er), I realize that it is, indeed, our responsibility to live in harmony with the other living beings inhabiting our planet, including the birds. As I write this, my peaches are nearing perfect, tree-ripened glory. This has not gone unnoticed by the birds. For the past few days that same pair of perky red-headed house finches who visited last spring but opted for a better location have dropped by toward evening to cautiously peck at a peach, testing for ripeness. I understand that they may get one, or two, or even half of my harvest. But if I pay attention, I, too, will catch the moment of ripeness. I will get my share, and they will get their share. It will be my way of thanking them for the organic aphid control.
Birds remind me that it is indeed possible to love and hate something at the same time, to simultaneously desire and to be repelled, to be unable to live with or live without. They remind me that it is possible for love to transmogrify into something ugly and resentful, but that it is also possible for hate to transform into something beautiful and poignant. For me, birds exemplify the world of endless possibility. They are a physical reminder that the two opposite ends of any spectrum might at any time twist and turn until they meet, until they murmurate into a new, fantastically complete cosmic connection. For me, birds are the living embodiment of all endless, opposing possibilities.