Thursday, October 21, 2010

Three Blue Feathers

This afternoon I was picking up and bundling brush and branches from some of our trail clearing and garden pruning when I uncovered a blue jay's feather on the ground.  When I looked more closely, I saw that it was in fact two feathers together, most likely wing feathers because of their size and the amount of white on their tips.  Then I noticed a third, smaller feather, possibly from the same place and the same bird.

What had happened?  I worry about the jays and the other birds that we see around our house and grounds, mostly because of the calico cat.  Three feathers don't necessarily equal a dead bird, but they are a sign that something happened.  Part of the problem is our seed feeders.  I fill them up and a couple of jays usually notice pretty quickly, eat their fill, and then call to the other jays to let them know.  Of course the others come from around the neighbourhood – there’s a small gang of a dozen or so, I'd guess – and they eat too.

I’m happy to feed them, along with the chickadees, woodpeckers, juncos, and sparrows, but the jays are big, and they get excited as they feed, and within a day the feeder is empty and there’s seed spread all over the ground under it.  None of the birds, except for the woodpeckers, seem to mind eating off the ground, but unfortunately this is where the calico cat sometimes enters the picture.

This cat, which appears to have our neighbourhood as its private hunting ground by day (I believe the raccoons rule the nighttime), knows to run if it sees me.  After all, I do tend to favour birds over cats in this situation, and any time I have noticed it from the kitchen window stalking the small birds pecking seeds off the ground, I go out.  It takes off as soon as the door opens, because it knows I might be picking up a small rock, but there are so many times I’m not at the kitchen window or out in the yard.

However, jays are corvids, which means that they are smart, like their cousins, the ravens and crows, so I am always hopeful.  I know that the crows aren’t vulnerable, and it’s not just because they don’t come to the feeder.  In fact, they like to gang up on the cat, the same way they’ll chase the raven that sometimes strays here from over by York Redoubt, or an owl if it made the mistake of perching somewhere in their territory.  They call from Irene’s roof to our roof to the big spruce by our driveway to the white pines next to the house and there’s nothing happens around here that the crows don’t seem to know about.  One of my favourite recent moments was looking towards the clamour of crows next door and seeing the calico cat streaking across Jim’s long lawn with three crows dive-bombing it.

So three feathers with their brilliant blue barred with black and white on the tips means I need to watch for a jay with a slightly ragged wing, keep on keeping an eye on the feeder, and continue to hope that the crows are on patrol, the bright-eyed jays are alert, and the calico cat is still stalking in vain.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Falling into Fall (for A. and others who love the season)

This post is about the season, and some of the signs of that season.  Like good old Canadian maple leaves.
Or maple wood stacked to dry.
Or the bright cliché of a burning bush burning.
Or a birch against a blue autumn sky.
Or the soft colours and delicate feet of a creature, this one a deer mouse, that made the mistake of moving indoors.
Or sunlight catching maple leaves.
Or last year’s hydrangeas in the green bin because we have more this year.
Or fall chrysanthemums at the doorway.
Or a rugosa putting out its last bloom of the season.
Or the faint lemon scent you get when you prune the morning star magnolia.
Or just more maple leaves.  Enjoy the season!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Small Broken Lightnesses of Being

A couple of weeks ago I was standing on our upper deck with my friend S. looking down at shrubs and bushes in front of our house.  In particular, we were watching a small brown bird, clearly a sparrow, which had landed on one of them.  He asked me what kind I thought it was, and I said, Maybe a song sparrow, though I wasn’t sure.  I told him that I thought a song sparrow had nested inside that bush the last couple of seasons, but we both agreed that the size of this one didn’t seem quite right.

S. had told me a while ago about sitting very still on their deck with some birdseed in his palm and having a chickadee light there to feed.  I like this meaning of “light” as a verb; it says so much about the kind of touch this small bird makes on the hand that feeds it.  If there is magic in the world, perhaps it can be understood in the lightness of this touch.  I also admire S. for his patient stillness and willingness to wait for the bird to come to him and for the pleasure he found in it.

I thought about this a few days later when I saw a small shape lying on our main deck in front of the tall windows.  It was a white-throated sparrow, or what is usually called a white-throat.  There is much that I love about white-throats, but the loveliest is its song.  It reminds me of climbing the granite slope behind our old cottage in Purcell’s Cove many decades ago and hearing the white throats sing up there in the jack pines.  I knew the sound long before I knew the bird and learned how to mimic the five clear and haunting notes of one of its characteristic songs.  I can never hear a white-throat singing without thinking of those times and that place.  You can listen to the one I can whistle here.  You can see and hear it sing its other lovely song here.

I picked up the dead white-throat and noticed how its head flopped in my hand, its neck clearly broken.  I marveled at its compact shape, the neatness of its small white bib, the variations of brown in its flight feathers, the poignancy of its legs and feet, and the lovely lightness of its small being.  I know that birds have hollow bones and bodies that are lighter than you think they are going to be, but I am still amazed at the feel of one when it is lying in my palm.  It is always a small wonder.

I know that our windows are a hazard because of their height and the amount of sky they reflect, and birds do fly into them, though not always fatally.  At times I have watched small stunned creatures recover and fly away, and when I find small smears of feathers on the windows, or on the glass panels of the deck, I always hope that these birds managed to survive their impacts. 

A few years ago I found a sharp-shinned hawk on a path below our house.  It was lying on its side in the space between the blueberry bushes with every feather seeming to be in place and no sign of what might have killed it.  I carried its perfect lightness of being up the path and buried it at the edge of the garden, thinking of the beauty of its flight pattern, the mottling of its breast, and the sharp strength of its talons.

And I buried the white-throat, also in the garden.  I whistled its song as I filled the hole.

Since then I have noticed another one perched on that same shrub in front of the house.  I have tried whistling to it.  I am still hopeful it will whistle back.