By Susan Clements
The telltale flash of red bobbing behind the suet feeder told me we might have a male downy woodpecker visiting. I was transfixed. It had been a long, cold Western New York winter, and I was tired of it. Anyone close to me will tell you that I tend to brood, and I had plenty to brood about that early March day. Between work, family, and the general state of the world, I was in a constant state of worry.
It had taken the birds weeks to discover the feeders, and I was worried about that, too. Like most things I ruminate upon, this situation resolved itself. That morning, I watched from the dining room window as cardinals, juncos, sparrows, grackles, starlings, chickadees, and even a couple of fat squirrels joined the fun.
Watching birds has always been a part of my life. Not in the sense of “bird-watching” – owning expensive binoculars and having a life list of sightings, but in noticing and appreciating birds wherever they are. My parents always had backyard bird feeders and avidly noted the various species they spotted. This extended to our family vacations. My father was ever in pursuit of that elusive seagull picture. I still have boxes of his 35 mm slides showing vast expanses of sea and sky, and a blur where the seagull took off.
One summer, we spent hours at the beach with eyes fixed on an osprey nest atop a pole in the ocean. Ospreys are fierce looking raptors that dive for fish to feed their young. My mother was fierce in look and demeanor, so that summer, we started calling her “Mommy Osprey.” With her silver hair that stood on end like ruffled feathers, hawk-like nose and piercing gaze, she remained “Mommy Osprey” for the rest of her days.
Kay and I had always hung a bird feeder from the crab apple tree in our backyard, but when it had to be cut down, we got out of the habit. I remember one vivid encounter that took place soon after my mother died. We’d had a big storm, and I was slogging through thigh-high snow to fill the feeder, when I found myself face to face with a downy woodpecker. I froze in place as the bird looked at me. It seemed like minutes went by before it flew away. I had the strongest feeling that my mother was with me in that moment.
Over the years, I’ve seen some extraordinary sights. Floating in a canoe, silently drifting near a loon with a baby nestled on her back; being startled by a flock of wild turkeys taking flight; watching pelicans dive from great heights; finding a nest with five tiny eggs in the Boston fern on our porch. One day, I was driving onto the Niagara University campus when a bald eagle soared not five feet in front of my windshield.
Each of these encounters takes my breath away and takes me out of my own head.
I don’t know why I felt compelled to put bird feeders up this year. Perhaps it was the unusually harsh winter that had me worrying about them eating enough to survive. I do know that since the birds have returned, I’ve felt an uncomplicated joy in watching them. I look out the window more, and down at my phone less. I’m more focused on avian antics than Facebook likes. Eyes trained upward and outward, phone in my pocket where it belongs, I feel close to my mother and at peace.
Perhaps being bird brained isn’t all that bad.
Susan Clements writes, ruminates and watches birds in Buffalo.