My house sits on a peninsula of sorts, the last house on the street. There’s a gully behind the property with a small stream running through it. This overgrown, marshy gully is the playground of woodchucks, squirrels, and the occasional deer. I’ve seen a roving gang of raccoons passing through my yard on their way to the gully and places unknown. There’s a lot of birds, too, and they start singing at about the same time the newspaper arrives.
This peninsula is wild and forlorn in its way, even though the busy highway is only about 300 yards from the house.
I’ve been aware of the birds since I moved in, hearing them in the morning or in the quiet times after dinner. But I’m no bird watcher and it wasn’t until a friend visited and said “wow, you’ve got a lot of birds in your yard” that I began seeing individual birds and noticing their differences.
My awareness of their winged omnipresence has made the birds of my neighborhood excellent company during the many long, lonely hours I’ve spent in the garden this summer. The goldfinches travel in pairs where they briefly perch in unlikely places like the long stems of tiger lilies and Echinacea. The stems sway precariously against their slight weight and pressure; the birds seem to enjoy it, like a carnival ride.
It may very well have been the same goldfinches who broke a few branches of the volunteer sunflower tree. I spotted one landing happily on a branch and the next day I found the snapped branch on the ground. I staked the remaining branches to preserve the plant.
My favorite feathered friend is the grey catbird. According to Stan Tekiela’s field guide, Birds of Maine, the catbird is a “secretive bird that the Chippewa Indians named Bird That Cries With Grief due to its raspy call. The call sounds like the mewing of a house cat, hence the common name. Frequently mimics other birds and rarely repeats the same phrases.”
One day I looked out the laundry room window and saw a cat bird peering in at me.
It’s a common phenomenon for grieving people to consider birds embodying the spirit of dead loved ones. The naturalist Ernest Ingersoll, in his 1923 book Birds in Legend and Fable, wrote there was almost a universal belief that birds were visible spirits of the dead.
As I look out the kitchen window, I see a small grey bird in the blueberry bush.
“Catbird, is that you,” I ask.
In this long summer of grief, my haunting by the catbird has been a pleasant respite from sadder thoughts.