January 27, 2008

Going to the Birds

One of the first things I noticed about or new house -- other than the mold and the drafts, of course -- were the birds, namely that there weren't any. This is perhaps not unusual in Northern Canada in the dead of winter, still it did come as a bit of a shock to me. If you're accustomed to the sights and sounds of birds, a landscape devoid of them seems eerily still.

My mother's garden in downtown Little Rock is always aflutter with birds: cardinals and bluejays, mockingbirds and hummingbirds, robins, chickadees and sparrows. She even has a "piteousness of doves" (one of the acceptable plurals for doves), whose sweet coo-cooing can be heard as far away as the upstairs bathroom, while one sits soaking in the claw-footed tub. Pure heaven.

"Well, they didn't just show up overnight," explained my mother during one of my long, complaining phone calls. "I've cultivated them for years." For several months now, I have been reading up on the cultivation of lettuces and tomatoes, delphiniums and daffodils, but I hadn't given a single thought to the cultivation of birds. "Just go out and buy some birdseed, " she advised, "And they'll come to you."

So, I went to Home Depot and stocked up on fancy suet plugs filled with fruits and nuts and birdseed-- just the thing I'd want if I were unlucky enough to be a bird in Edmonton in winter -- but then I realized one of the fatal flaws in my mother's 2-step plan for bird cultivation: We have no trees, not even a lowly shrub. That wonderful tabula rasa of a backyard, which is so great for the imagination, turns out to be terrible for the birds. All that our yard boasts above the snow line is about 20-feet of deciduous hedgerow along the road. (And "hedgerow" is being generous; "kindling" is more like it.)

Nonetheless, I hung my little suet plugs on the bare branches, right in front of my living-room window, and I waited and waited and waited. Days turned into weeks, until finally, I went outside to move them around, thinking perhaps I had hung them too low to the ground. They were frozen solid. Apparently, at -20 C even lard turns to ice.

So, I went back to Home Depot and got the cheap, no-frills birdseed bells, and I waited some more. Then, yesterday, an unseasonably warm day (a high of -1 C!), I saw a small flash of brown in the hedgerow. Then, another. Two tiny sparrows were hoping about the lower branches, fighting for access to my birdseed bell. They stayed for hours, pecking and chirping, pecking and chirping, and I am mildly embarrassed to say that I spent almost as much time watching them.

I know it's probably silly to get so worked up over a pair of common brown sparrows, but they've given me hope that my efforts here are not in vain. If a little birdseed can attract a couple of birds, then a few coats of paint may brighten up a shabby rental. If I plant something, it may grow, and if I attempt to create a life here, it just might blossom. And who knows, I may have a garden full of birds come spring, after all. My sparrows might come back. They might even tell their friends. Why, just this morning I saw a "party" of high-combed bluejays eyeing my hedge...

Some amusing avian plural forms (for more, click here):

a charm of hummingbirds (or finches)
a conspiracy of ravens
a convocation of eagles
an exaltation of larks
a huddle of penguins
a lamentation of swans
a mob of emus
a murder of crows
a parliament of owls
a siege of cranes

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