Like most folks, I know what a robin looks like, cardinals are super easy. Of course, my favorite birds are blue jays. However, I’m terrible at identifying most birds. I know about crows and ravens, but it takes me awhile to see their differences. I know the basic shape of a falcon and that of an eagle, but again, I can only name a very few of them.
Several years ago, I purchased a copy of the Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. It’s a very large book, rich in photographs and concise descriptions of most of the birds that can be found on this continent. It is one of those books a person can spend hours studying. The encyclopedia is far too large to bring along on a drive or a hike into the countryside, so I sometimes carry a pocket size guide.
I keep binoculars near the back door of my house because I live adjacent to a small river. The tree-lined bank is a haven for various small mammals and numerous birds. Some days, the area is busy with aquatic bird species and other days I notice an abundance of various songbirds. On rare days, there are both. Once, I was lucky to see a wood duck perched on one of my oldest trees. The photo I snapped of it turned out badly because it was taken through two panes of window glass at dusk.
While clipping a shrub last August, I felt the eerie sensation of being watched from behind. I turned around and looked up. There was a majestic golden hawk spying on me from atop of a utility pole. The incident made me understand that there’s another meaning of the term “bird watching”.
The usual birds that watch me are blue jays. A few years ago, I befriended one. I found out accidentally that he liked to eat the garlic bread that I set out for the squirrels. He also knew the time of day I brought out the food. The jay sat on the same tree limb around 10 AM to supervise where and how I placed his treats.
I remember when the blue jay became my totem animal. I was a rambunctious teenaged boy with a wild streak. On my 14th birthday I had been grounded because of some sort of misbehavior that I can’t now recall. While I was stewing in my own juices, I heard a blue jay screeching from one of the trees.
The memory of the situation is still crystal clear in my mind. The blue jay’s stare locked onto my own. He clumsily flew down and landed on the lawn a few feet away from my chair. The bird cocked his head and hopped around me in a semi-circular path. He screeched at me then quickly flew to a low branch in one of the cherry trees. What happened next, completely bowled me over.
He sounded a few “jeer-jeer” tones then got all puffed up. His whole body began pumping in and out, up and down as if he was a bellows. Seconds later, I heard the most beautiful, haunting song I’d ever enjoyed in my life. His voice sounded like a combination of some sort of jungle bird and a flute. During the entire time of his performance, we had total, mutual eye contact. Suddenly, without warning, he flapped his wings and sped away from the yard. I heard him screech a few times from a tree a few lots away, but I never encountered him again.
That event awakened a latent concern about wildlife in me. Within the next year, I began reading about native North American animals and birds. I especially scoured the small town’s three libraries for anything at all about blue jays.
During my high school years, I made friends with some college students who were into the environmental movement of the late 1960s. I found out that most of my new friends also had stories about their encounters with birds. One of the Native Americans entertained us with traditional Lakota bird stories. He also told a personal story involving a blue jay that unfolded in much the same way as had my own. If you investigate, on your own, you’ll find many examples of bird tales told from the viewpoint of Indians. There is a whole subset of loon lore to read, too.
If you really enjoy bird stories, there are many to explore from other traditions, too. Two of the best are from the Aesop’s Fables stories. I remember “The Birdcatcher, the Partridge, and the Cock” along with “The Bat, The Birds, and the Beasts”.
Possibly some of the most eloquent bird culture involves the Japanese and their relationship to cranes. In East Asian societies, the large birds represent peace and long life. The Japanese Crane stands about five-feet tall and has a five-feet wide wing span. My former partner told me that if I fold a thousand paper origami cranes, my deepest wish will come true. I still need to learn the art of origami.
Today is a great time to reflect upon your relationship with birds. This is National Bird Day, a commemoration established by concerned bird lovers and activists. The day advocates recognition of the plight of captive birds and the exploitation of them in the American pet industry. National Bird Day is when we can show our concern for exploited birds and also enjoy the birds that remain in the wild. If you own a pet bird, this is a good time to give her a special treat and some extra attention.
There are two other days devoted to birds in the US. The original Bird Day is celebrated on May 4th, each year. International Migratory Bird Day is on the second Saturday of May.
Have a happy National Bird Day.