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In the fifth grade, I often stayed up long after my parents had gone to bed, making sure the margins in my geography notebook were straight as an arrow for Miz Eva Lois Wright. This genetic disposition to please people now obliges me to respond quickly to the plethora of “Getting To Know You” quizzes my friends have taken to sending me on the Internet. The questionnaires are similar to the ice-breaker games of my Methodist Youth Fellowship days – silly and sort of fun.
Most of us, though, have known each other so long we can recite each other’s grade school crushes in chronological order. Still, it can be surprising to learn what a lifelong friend actually eats for breakfast.
And I admit that some of the questions make me stop and think. For example, a recent quiz wanted to know if I were a bird watcher. A bird watcher? An image of Dick Davenport in a pith helmet leaped to mind. He was the obsessive ornithologist married to Congressman Lacey Davenport in the Doonesbury comic strip. You may not remember him because Trudeau killed him off with a massive heart attack in 1986 – at the very moment Davenport finally snapped a photo of the rare and elusive Bachman’s Warbler.
So no, I’m not a bird watcher, not with binoculars, not with a camera, not with a safari outfit purchased at Banana Republic. But living as I do in the middle of a bunch of trees, I do see a lot of birds.
For example, our 4-year-old grandson Owen spotted a hummingbird on our deck this weekend, and talked incessantly about it for the rest of the day. I share Owen’s enthusiasm. A hummingbird – the bird that isn’t engineered to fly at all – is one of God’s most inspiring creations.
I’m fond, too, of the cheerful red cardinals that bathe in our fountain. They remind me of my mother-in-law who lived on a street called Cardinal Court for the last 15 years of her life. She loved the color red, and so began collecting red cardinal figurines. When I see the red birds out our window, I always wonder if she’s sent them to say hello.
The greedy blue jays fight with the chipmunks for whatever bounty falls in our yard. They make me think of Mark Twain’s funny old story, the one about the blue jay who hoarded nuts, dropping them one-by-one down a knothole in the roof of an empty cabin. He drove himself crazy trying to fill the hole up to the top.
And nobody could ignore the gossipy pigeons who come waddling across the deck like Russian babushkas in head scarves and short fur coats. They’re always prepared for winter and for the worst. The mourning doves stop by occasionally too. They remind me of puffed up, stuffy old men, maybe undertakers. They make me sad wailing as they do.
But I’m infatuated with a graceful yellow finch that favors a branch growing near our front bow window. I stare at this exquisite black and yellow creature, and I remember the feeling of being young once, of feeling pretty once, of flitting, however briefly, like a bird.
Robins aren’t beautiful in the way of the yellow finch, but they’re cute, the way cheerleaders used to be before they got mixed up with the Dallas Cowboys. The robins remind me of the old song that went bob, bob, bobbing along waking up sleepyheads when I was a little girl. Why don’t people sing that fine song anymore?
Occasionally a giant blue heron perches on my neighbors’ roof stalking the fish in their koi pond. I stop and admire the heron’s magnificence and its power even as I pity its prey.
And every day, I watch the birds foul the lime-green umbrellas that shade the tables on my deck. They do this with abandon, and I suspect, with a giggle. Even as I go through my daily cleaning of the umbrellas, though, I admire the birds’ ability to adapt to changing circumstances, to persist and survive. Less than 20 years ago, my city subdivision was somebody’s tobacco farm. Interstate 75, a couple of miles from my back yard, now carries a gazillion cars from north to south across America. Man o’ War Boulevard, one of the major routes through Lexington, is even closer, and houses stretch away in all directions. Yet the birds have adapted to this shifting landscape.
His eye is on the sparrow, I remember hearing. Would that His eye be on me as I learn from the birds.