Monday, June 15, 2015

The Bird Book

The Actual Book!
My elementary school, which has now been torn down and rebuilt into a bigger and more modern building on the very same block, did not have a library. I mean to say, it did not have an actual Library room. Instead, we all trooped into the gymnasium, which also had in it a stage. We carefully mounted the steps, and there behind the curtains were the shelves and shelves of books. Looking back now, there couldn't have been very many, and I don't honestly know how the whole thing was managed. After all, we had school programs and concerts, too, but I think they were held on the floor of the gym at the front of the stage on risers. None of that mattered to me, of course. I just loved going to the library and picking out a book.

Heck, I don't recall there even being a librarian. I doubt there was one. It was probably the teacher's job to take care of all of that in our Gym-Stage Library. As I've mentioned here many times before, I was completely oblivious to so much Reality as I was growing up. I completely trusted all Grownups to take care of everything, and I was happy to let them.

Since I was already reading well into the middle grades when I arrived at kindergarten, I burned through the little library pretty quickly, at least the books I was interested in. But I didn't mind. I was--and still am--an avid ReReader. I also took out the books no one else cared too much about, like the Bird Book.

I was pretty excited about bringing home the Bird Book to my mother. St. Patsy started me on my love of backyard birdwatching, and her knowledge of bird songs, nests, habits, mating rituals, and everything else is almost encyclopedic. When she trimmed our bangs, she put the hair out for the robins to use in their nests. When she heard a frenzy of robin and blue jay calls, she knew they were feuding for nesting territory.  She knew why we got chased by the blue jay--it had a nest in the rose arbor by the door. And it was my mother who called for the BB gun every time she saw the neighbor's Siamese cat slithering around the back yard, low and slow, its eyes intent on the chubby baby robin listening at the wet ground near the bird bath. St. Patsy could noiselessly slide that gun barrel through the open storm window, draw a bead on that cat's butt, and ping it precisely to the right or left of the tail. The next thing we'd hear was a pained screech from a cat jumping straight up in the air before it scooted out of the yard. "All right Mom!" we'd hoot, and she'd simply nod, satisfied.

My mother and I would look at the Bird Book together, and I would look at it endlessly alone. I still remember its bright pages, each one about 4" x 6", bearing an illustration of a bird. They weren't photographs, like most bird books have now, but drawings. Underneath was a brief summary of its habitat, call/song, what it ate, how many eggs in its nest, type of nest, etc. I had seen a great many, of course: robin, blue jay, cardinal, grackle, starling, Baltimore oriole, red wing blackbird, all ten million sparrows, chickadees, juncos, mourning doves, and more. But as I looked at some of the other birds, I felt jealous. Some were so exotic, so colourful, so unusual. Why didn't they ever come to our yard? What if I never saw a red-eyed vireo? Or a pine grosbeak? Or a scarlet tanager? I had never even seen a hummingbird, let alone a painted (rainbow) bunting! And I had never gotten to see a bluebird, either.

The only flamingos I had ever seen were my late grandmother's old wire and concrete ones in my dad's rose garden. And the ones on Florida postcards we had been sent. All of our birds were boring. I still loved them, however, at least most of them. I learned my mother's disdain for starlings and grackles, both messy birds who were pigs at the bird feeders, ate all of our cherries before we got any, and who crowded out the other birds.

My father had a special affinity for the cardinal. He loved its red plumage, black mask, and the way it feeds and keeps company with its mate. It brightens up its surroundings, and it often waits until other birds are gone to feed. It likes to feed at dusk, when things are cool and quiet. It is a bit solitary, and he was a lot like that. My mother thinks of my dad whenever she sees a cardinal, and I think the rest of us do, too.

If I had to pick a favourite bird, I would pick the blue jay. It is a very beautiful bird, not shy at all, with a variety of songs and calls. It is a misunderstood bird in that many observers think it chases small birds away from feeders, but once it makes its "clear out" call, it gets a seed and flies elsewhere to eat it. In fact, blue jays are planters because of this. They often take seeds, bury or place them to eat later, forget about it, and the seeds will sprout. So, blue jays might have a big mouth and seem bossy, but they do a lot of good behind the scenes.

When I adopted EmilyCat so, so many years ago, I felt a twinge of guilt. She was mostly Siamese. We all grew up as Cat Haters, so devoted we were to birds, and we especially hated and mistrusted Siamese cats. One of the few times I ever heard my mother swear was when she referred to the Bird And Baby Bunny Eating Siamese as "That Damn Cat." But puny, sick little EmilyCat needed us. And it all turned out fine.

I'm happy to report that I have added considerably to my list of Birds I've Seen, even though some still remain elusive. Hummingbirds regularly stop at my feeder, and I did see a bluebird. A nesting pair of cedar waxwings cavort in the branches above the deck. Sunshiny goldfinches seem to be everywhere. A Carolina wren kept the kittens and me company all winter, pecking around on the front porch. Those are only a few examples. And I see a brilliant red cardinal, it seems, wherever I go.

bird book image


  1. I admire people who can see and identify birds. I have a sort of birdie prosopagnosia [face blindness] which means that I see their colors… and then not much else. All I know is it's a bird. Beak. Wings. Feathers.

    1. Ally Bean--I'm sure that this post is boring the hell out of many of my readers who are simply Not Into Birds. You have a different thing going on, but you appreciate many other things in nature.

      You certainly appreciate Nature as a whole. When you share pictures of your yard over at your space, it's simply gorgeous.

    2. Why thank you. Flowers I see clearly, but birds… not so much. [Years ago I wrote a post about some black birds that I'd photographed; I said that they were crows. The whole internet descended upon me to tell me that they were turkey vultures! It was amazing how my mistake generated the comments.]

  2. I have a copy of that bird book. Brought my kids up on it. My mother, too, was a bird lover and identifier and up until I was eight, I thought she was preternaturally brilliant at telling me what each black blob of a bird was called. Then I got glasses!
    We have rose breasted grosbeaks here, along with the birds on your list. Not only gorgeous but also musically gifted. And pigs of hummingbirds. Must fill the porch feeder now. Again.
    Like this post a lot.

    1. Mary G--I was the same age when I finally got my first pair of specs. I rode the whole way home reading every sign I saw. My poor, guilt-stricken mother was in tears.

      Our hummingbird feeder is almost never without a visitor, even during our now-constant rains. They are such marvels to me, even now that they are commonplace. Glad you liked this post. (I'm jealous of your grosbeaks!)

  3. I was about 10 when I got my first glasses - such a dramatic life change! And yet I still would forget them All The Time. Sigh.

    As you know, we are all about the birds in our house, although we just mostly take what we can get in the back yard: one million sparrows, cardinals, doves (so sweet & clumsy!), grackles (GORGEOUS feathers, no matter what anyone says), goldfinches, purple house finches, a couple of kinds of woodpecker, the occasional hummingbird, and last summer, a red wing blackbird!

    We always laugh when we visit my dad in NC because his blue jays like to eat the dog food - it's hilarious. Last time we were down there, at Mike's dad's house, we saw a bluebird couple feeding their babies, and then later, inexplicably, they chased a squirrel away from a tree. It wasn't anywhere near their nest - we have no idea what was going on & neither did the squirrel. Fortunately it found a dinner roll & ran off with it, so it had some consolation.

    In short: birds are hilarious & beautiful - who could ask for anything more?

    1. The Bug--Gosh, I never forgot mine. I couldn't see without those things. And mine were the cat-eye ones. Were yours?

      I do agree that the grackles, although pests, have lovely plumage. Their waddling gait is funny to watch. And the woodpeckers are a treat to find and watch--also to listen to, whether it is their hammering or their whistling.

      I very much enjoyed the pictures at your site of the dogfood-thieving jays! Hilarious indeed.

  4. I know virtually nothing about birds, but I think it is so lovely that St. Patsy was able to teach you so much and develop an appreciation for our fine-feathered friends.

    It’s interesting to think about the think about how our parents shaped our lives by how they educated us. What they taught us and ... what they didn’t. My mother didn’t teach me diddly squat about cooking, which I was really interested in. But she by God taught me how to sew, which I also loved. I made a lot of dresses in high school, and even a few in my college years when there was time. Now... I don’t sew at all (except for loose buttons and a bit of hemming), but when I learned how to sew it seemed so thrilling to be able to make something that I could wear (even if it looked precisely like I made it myself, lol.) It gave me a real sense of accomplishment and triumph to be able to do something I never thought I could do, and that’s such an important lesson when you are struggling with who you are and what you might accomplish in life. Being knowledgeable on a subject creates that same sense of satisfaction. Just for the sheer sake of knowing, but also because it is something you can ‘pay forward.’ Like a lovely red cardinal that is always around the corner.

    1. i hate typos. "to think about the think about" = well, just to think about. which you could work out, of course.

    2. Ortizzle--(I didn't even notice your typo. My brain just did the necessary edit.)

      My grandmother, a fine seamstress and tailor, tried her very best to teach me to sew. And I did very much want to learn, too. But I was clumsy and fearful and simply not good at it; I had no talent or natural affinity even for understanding how to measure or follow the pattern or anything. My brain doesn't work that way. Home Ec sewing later was a similar disaster. Too much precision is required.

      My mother didn't really teach me about cooking; my father was tremendously picky about his food and only wanted her to cook it, so I didn't get any chance to cook at home. But I watched her and picked up a lot from that. That, and believe it or not, the proliferation of cooking television shows. They interested me to no end. I learned a lot from watching some of those.

  5. Speaking of birds:

    As migration approached, two elderly vultures doubted they could make the trip south, so they decided to go by airplane. When they checked their baggage, the attendant noticed that they were carrying two dead raccoons.

    "Do you wish to check the raccoons through as luggage?" she asked.

    "No, thanks," replied the vultures. "They're carrion." .

    1. Nancy--Oh, wonderful! That one "ranks" in the top ten.

  6. HA! to Nancy's joke. Very funny.

    I hate bluejays, but really only one specific blue jay that was raucous indeed when I was trying to sleep in on weekend mornings. He was a jerk. Now we have jerk crows that yell at each other from the tree tops. And a squirrel in our yard that we named George Bush because he's an asshole and ate the nozzel of our garden hose.

    When I was a kid, I used to live a block away from the public library, and they had a room where you could listen to records (through headphones, I'm sure). You could also check out the records and bring them home. I was obsessed with one particular record, which had all kinds of facts about wolves on one side, and wolves howling and singing on the other side. I loved that album, and would listen to it over and over again. I think my mom and brother were SO SICK of listening to wolves howl, we left Alaska to get away from it. She could have just bought me headphones and saved herself a lot of trouble.

    1. J@jj--Kudos to you on the squirrel name. I am stealing your idea and naming all of the offensive and grating wildlife in our yard after republicans. I'll keep you posted on who gets to be TedCruz.

      Did you leave Alaska to get away from the recording of wolves or from the real wolves that then reminded them of the oft-played recording? Because if it was only to get away from the record, I shudder to think of you all packing up, moving thousands of miles away, and Little J merrily discovering the very same record at another library. Of course, you may not have reached adulthood and The Interwebs if that had been the case...!

      Such good stories in the Comments! (And I will share a Crow Story of my own, I think, in my next post.)

    2. I love the idea of me finding the album here in CA. Sadly, I have no idea what it was called and haven't found anything like it on the internet. So the move was successful, alas.

  7. Nance, I had that same bird book as a child! I adored it. I won it for naming all the capitals (if I recall) in my Sunday school class. Yes, my teacher was very diverse in her training. She was also our postmistress at our tiny post office (our mailing address was simply General Delivery, Garrisonville, Virginia) and a fanatical bird watcher.

    I adored the drawings in that book! They seemed so much more accessible and friendlier than later bird books of ours that contained photographs. I don't think I still have my copy. I know it was literally falling apart from its constant use (I had to put a rubber band around it) and I might have thrown it away in one of my decluttering phases. I feel a pang of guilt about that now.

    Mr. GFE and I both share a love of birds, even owning a dozen exotic finches (not just your basic zebra finches) when we were first married. They had names like Boris and Natasha, Sally One Note, Anthony and Cleopatra, etc.

    Robins, chickadees, Carolina wrens, bluebirds, orioles, and downy woodpeckers have built nests and raised babies in our yard or garage (once in my motorcycle helmet!) here and at our mountain property. Eating dinner on our screened porch is better than watching tv because of the constant bird traffic.

    When we were building our house, we saw an indigo bunting in the tree that is closest to the porch. I can still see it vividly in my mind but, sadly, I haven't seen an indigo bunting anywhere in a very long time.

    I have lots of favorites. Carolina wrens always amaze me because they show up immediately after Mr. GFE puts a new load of firewood on our patio and he doesn't even finish unloading a newly cut load of wood before they're all over it! I love their silly short song as well as their much prettier long song. Chickadees are too cute (especially the tiny babies) and I like their silly song (reminds me of a robot character in an old tv show). Blue jays and cardinals both are beautiful. (I embroidered blue jays for my then not yet MIL for her first Christmas present, and now have that piece in our living room.) It was only the last few years that I learned about the cardinal's fancier long song with the trills. I was used to its more mundane call. Orioles are beautiful. We recently traveled to Kansas and Missouri and saw Red-Winged Blackbirds there. (I've occasionally seen them on the way to our mountain property, but not often.) Eagles, hawks (including ospreys), Canadian geese and ducks of all kinds (love seeing their babies shoot the rapids!), blue herons, green herons all garner our attention around here, at our mountain property, and in our travels.

    I got my glasses in the 3rd grade, too, so that must be pretty common. While I wasn't crazy about the cat eyes' factor, I sure did like being able to see and read everything!

    Finally, hehe on naming offensive critters after politicians. I could do that to the squirrels, but not the birds! Great post, Nance!


    1. Shirley--How funny that you should mention your Carolina wrens showing up on your firewood. That is where our Carolina wren pair hung out all winter; our porch holds our winter supply of firewood for the living room fireplace. This year was the first time, however, that we ever had that particular avian visitor.

      I am completely charmed by baby ducks. Their behaviour fascinates me, and their mothers are wonderful parents. And the rear view as they run away after being startled never fails to make me laugh.

      Rick and I were, briefly, bird owners as well. It was a white finch who had gotten loose from a Woolworth's store in the mall and had flown into a shoe store. The original owner--the store manager--was moving cross-country, and had already named him World B. Free, a basketball player in Cleveland at the time. He turned out to be a she, a fact we discovered when we saw a teeny egg in the cage one day! After World B. passed on, we got a beautifully marked temple finch named, of course, Atticus.

      I'm afraid that my appreciation for Canada geese is terribly dimmed now due to their overabundance at the lake. They leave a horrendous amount of huge droppings behind which are messy and ugly and an awful nuisance. My cats don't leave droppings that big! I vastly prefer the quite courtly mallards, who for some reason, always look to me as if they are wearing little waistcoats and might be ready to check a pocketwatch.

      Thanks for the compliment on this post. I've been horribly poky about writing this summer--overall, really--and it's nice to know that people are still reading.

  8. I'm glad someone likes the bluejays! I'm not fond of watching them steal babies out of their nests. We used to have cats who were good hunters and my mom put bells on their collars. It slowed down their success some but they still managed to catch some. Mostly mom kept her cats inside.

    1. Jean--I'm sorry that this comment showed up and I missed it somehow.

      I've never seen this behaviour from bluejays in my yard, and I'm glad. This behaviour is relatively common for some other birds, I know.

      There are a lot of outdoor cats as well as strays in our neighborhood, sadly. I hate the whole notion of "outdoor cats". They become everyone's problem, and, as you said, they decimate the bird population. They hunt for the instinctual need, not for food.

  9. I love this post so much and thank you for directing me here. You came by your love of birds naturally; your mom did a great job. Learning to love and appreciate nature is a joy we all need to have. Funny about the siamese cat; they're lovely, but yes, a detriment to birds.
    My Aunt and Uncle always had a love for birds and butterflies; when I was a kid they had books, photos, feeders, binoculars at the windows of their home. So, I recall seeing their appreciation for all things nature, but then I went back to my distracted parents who were just trying to get by day to day. But, look at me now!

    1. BB Suz--Thank you for reading and for commenting on this old post, and for loving it!

      I'm so glad that your aunt and uncle provided a respite for you as a kid. It's clear that they had an impact and that their love of nature, birds, and butterflies equated with simplicity and calm for you. It resonated, and as you said, you now find such joy in those things yourself.

      It's often said that children adapt so well, but there is a cost to that. Sometimes, there's not a lot left in the bank for themselves as they grow into maturity. Fortunately, that's not the case with you.


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