bird feeder photo

My favorite chair is one next to the large window overlooking a dozen flower pots and three bird feeders. At least twenty different species visit those feeders, and I love getting to know them and learning their behaviors.


I want to know the names of all my avian visitors. (I think it’s unfair, however, that the birds “change clothes” with the changing seasons, and the purple finch that I recognized in his spring finery isn’t as easily identified in late summer.)


Robin photoA name, for me, is like a jewelry box into which I put everything that I experience and all that I learn about, for example, the robin. In my Robin jewelry box are such things as

  • how “common and ordinary” I think the bird is, but every spring I’m amazed again at how big and bright he is when he’s hoping to attract a mate
  • the robin’s songs at twilight, repetitive and full of gratitude
  • the corner of my deck railing that becomes his personal porta-potty while he sings
  • the stubborn bird that keeps bashing his head against my window, fighting off the “competitor” he sees reflected there. Neither he nor his equally persistent rival will give up the fight until they’re too exhausted to go on.


 photo I have an avian jewelry box labeled Flicker.  The gems in that box are

  • that huge black bib and the red cheek splotch and all those polka dots!
  • learning that flicker’s tongue wraps around his brain to cushion it when he’s pounding on a tree (or a roof) – how wonderful is that?
  • the memory of the flicker who cost me $110 a couple of years ago. He wanted the neighborhood ladies to understand his sexiness, and his pounding on my home’s metal roof vents sent reverberations throughout the house exhaust system. Unfortunately, that was before I had a Ficker jewelry box, and I didn’t yet understand flicker habits, so I called in a heating repairman to see what was “wrong” with my propane furnace and my propane fireplace log, and why were they making that odd unpredictable noise!


Yesterday I had a close encounter with a hummingbird. Unbeknownst to me this hummer flew into my garage as I was backing my car out. Several hours later I drove back into the hummingbird photogarage and found him, exhausted, fluttering weakly against the inside of the garage window, frantic to get out. Hummingbird feet can only clasp around something narrow; they cannot stand or walk on flat surfaces. So this poor hummer could not rest safely anywhere. I was able to capture him in my hand, a tiny, fragile, depleted, trembling creature. I confess I held him a minute or two longer than I needed to, just to soak up the miraculous fact of his being. Then I carried him out to my front garden and watched him soar up into the birch tree. Wow, did he have a story to tell when he got home! And I had a beautiful new gem to add to my Hummingbird jewelry box.


jewelry box photo

Photo by Shawn McCready

We’re nearing the end of a nine-month-long Audubon class, learning about all the birds that frequent Whidbey Island – and there are a LOT! Around two-hundred and fifty kinds, give or take.

Our instructors are delighted when we can tell a Song Sparrow from a Fox Sparrow.

But what delights me is to learn that the Woodpecker in my neighborhood has a very long tongue that retracts to coil around its brain for shock absorption when it’s pounding on that tree down the road!

I’m not terribly disappointed that I haven’t learned to distinguish one duck from another, but I love knowing that one of them – the Cinnamon Teal – constructs a tunnel to its nest to foil predators.

A Surf Scoter could grab me by the toe, and I still wouldn’t know what to call it (except perhaps something unkind in the moment), but the fact that it can dive down thirty feet to catch its dinner has me calling it “amazing.”

I don’t judge myself too harshly for still not knowing which Hawk is which. But I’ll probably never forget that underneath the elegant long feathers of the Great Blue Heron is a fluffy stuff called “powder down,” and the powder it produces is what the Heron uses to keep those beautiful blue-gray feathers preened.

There are some great new ornithology words I’ve learned in class, or old words that now have new meanings: I knew that a group of Crows is a “murder.” But I hadn’t known that a group of Coots is a “commotion.” Even better, a group of Loons is called an “asylum.” “Crepuscular” means active at dawn and dusk; “pelagic” means spending most of life on the open sea.

I’ve loved learning that Crows can fly up from the ground, but Ravens have to hop to get airborne; a Hummingbird cannot even walk.  A Barn Swallow’s nest is built of more than a thousand bird-mouthfuls of mud; an Osprey nest, made of sticks and small branches, can weigh four hundred pounds or more; a Hummingbird uses expandable spider web threads to stitch together its tiny nest.

Birds are descended from dinosaurs; scientists don’t know if they learned to fly by jumping out of trees, or by leaping up from the ground. And there are educated guesses, but nobody really knows for sure why a Cormorant stands still with wings spread out for long, long periods of time.

Tree Swallows like to play with white feathers in the air, and will keep at it for so long that the game will exhaust the human who is throwing feathers for them to fetch. The “crop milk” fed to a baby Pigeon by its parents contains more nutrients than does cow or human milk. A Plover can fly over 100 miles per hour. Owls have asymmetrical ears in order to hear better. I am amazed and delighted by all of these facts.

One classmate’s Life List of identified North American birds is already nearing 400. She’s a real “birder.” I’m happy for her, and for those who build their vacations around good birding sites where they can add to their Life Lists. I don’t think I’ll ever qualify as a “real birder.”

But I can promise you that, whether or not I can identify them correctly, I’ll never stop being fascinated by the winged ones with whom we share our lives!