Category Archives: Birds

On the Jordan at Dusk

Knowing the beaver come out in the evening, I launched from Porter’s Landing at 7:00 p.m. and sprinted three miles upstream, then turn and paddled slowly and quietly with the current, looking for beaver.  I saw 7 beaver, 3 great blue heron, 2 black-capped night heron, and a belted kingfisher: all miraculous.  I arrived at the launch just as the dark settled in.  By the time I hauled out, this poem had composed itself and was gently asking to be written.

On the Jordan at Dusk

settle into the rhythm…
dip and pull…
breathe…
dip and pull…
breathe…
wiggle
on the keel…

Belted Kingfisher
splashes indigo and rust
on white canvas…

Great Blue Heron
flies low and wide toward me,
and I wonder if I resemble a fish…

pink petals and perfume
droop transfigured into ripe
red rose hips…

evening’s green aromas
drift over the water,
warm and pungent…

silent beaver swim
in the shadows of a gibbous moon,
waning…

Osprey Brings a Snake for Her Crying Chick

During a visit to Greer, Arizona, we played at River Reservoir, where I searched for the Osprey my sister had seen weeks before.  The children canoed and fished for crayfish and napped on a quilt under the pines, while I scanned the sky.  The tree-top nest stood tall in front of me, and I was not disappointed:

Osprey Brings a Snake for Her Crying Chick

on a barkless ponderosa snag
ascending the hill—
a lightning kill—
a nest of rough twigs tangled
in the crook of its crown

a beak rises
peaks out and over
scans from north to south to north again

and from that beak a hunger call:
cry cry cry cry cry cry cry—

then the long wait for the mother

and the regurgitated trout:

              cry cry cry cry cry—

Here she comes!
swooping through pine tops
a snake slack with death dangling
from the ebony nails of her talons

Roger Baker is a municipal attorney, aspiring poet, and amateur naturalist.  He is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The book tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human heart.  The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.

When a Feather Falls from an Osprey

This is my staff.  An old mountain-man friend, Harvey, whose Indian name is Many Feathers, taught me the technique of shaving the feather shafts and curling them back into themselves to make a loop, then threading a string to tie to the staff.  Thus attached, the feathers sway freely in the breeze without damage.  Watching it rest in a corner, I wonder why I made it and what it means, to me, today.  Well, perhaps it is enough that the feathers are beautiful, and that I carved the staff, and that I love them.  Is more rationale needed?  This poem imagines finding real raptor feathers, creating a staff, and pondering the meanings.

When a Feather Falls from an Osprey

when a feather falls from an Osprey
wing and lies on a lakeshore
path a boy might find

her and raise her up and stroke
along her stiff-soft vane and hide
her in his sleeping bag

to take home, and, when
considerably older, he might learn
from Many Feathers to drape

her from a staff carved smooth,
from a waxy string tied through
a loop in her shaved shaft

where she sways
in an air-conditioned corner
with companions

—and just what are they for?
—what do they mean, now?
dead feathers not

flying just remembering
flights taken—short bursts—and more
merely dreamed of—

 

(All feathers depicted are lawfully possessed.)

I Have Never Heard Such Joy

On a canyon ride through gambel oaks, a streak of scarlet and yellow caught my eye, and the prettiest cascading song pleasured my ears.  I stopped my bicycle and stared at the miraculous little creature.  She in turn eyed me curiously and opened her beak in renewed song.  How could I not try to write her into a poem, though she remains joyfully wild in the woods?

I Have Never Heard Such Joy

I have never heard
such joy
as when a tanager opened
her soul to sing her trilling
song: a symphony compressed in
a single glorious line—

and, I know I should not
begin a poem with “I”
but to pen “much joy was heard” simply
will not do, for
I saw her scarlet streak through green,
I heard her delightsomeness,
I discerned her eager joy—

and as I stared, baffled
and thrilled, she again yielded up,
again, knowing
I could not
fathom after hearing but once her cleansing
cascade of happiness

 

Image by PublicDomainImages from Pixabay

Roger Baker is a municipal attorney, aspiring poet, and amateur naturalist.  Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The book tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human heart.  The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.

Who Ever Thought That Old River Could Be So Lovely

I often escape to the canyon for a mountain bike ride or to the Jordan River with a kayak.  Both have their attractions.  But when I want to be slow and quiet, to see wildlife, and to forget my troubles, there is nothing like a long paddle on the river.  Turtles sunning on logs.  Mallards flying upstream.  Great blue herons and belted kingfishers.  And signs of beaver chew.  This humble river runs the length of the great Salt Lake Valley, home to 1.2 million people.  The river runs mostly unseen and ignored right up the middle of the valley.  I am grateful for decades of visionaries who have seen to the river’s cleanup and restoration for people to kayak and canoe, fish, and cycle and walk and run on the riverside trails.  I can’t wait for my next glide on the river.  In the meantime, this poem distills some of my observations and impressions.

Who Ever Thought That Old River Could Be So Lovely

Paddling is as much pushing as it is pulling, a balance of both with each stroke, to spread the strain and stretch my strength to keep on.

The moment my kayak slips into the dark smooth water I feel free from sticky attachments and my fears float off with clouds of elm seeds.

Today I learn that when a Canada goose flies its elongated neck slightly dips and tremors with each wing beat.

Why would so many hundreds of swallows, swarming around me, glue their mud-daub domiciles under the lip of the rumbling interstate?

I feel a surge of joy just knowing that these new gnawings on elm trunks and new nippings of willow shoots mean that beaver again work the river.

A hen quacks increasing irritation as I keep arriving and she keeps needing to fly off. Her drake makes no protest, and I ask if he is lazy, or unconcerned, or thinks his partner makes sufficient complaint for them both.

My peace is disturbed by the screams of two-cycle engines racing on dirt tracks and spinning up dust: I pick up my paddling pace.

A snipe calls a chiding chirrup as she flushes then flutters on short wings, her beak longer than half her round body.

Squat socks knitted from gray grasses hang by the dozen on the ends of elm boughs: oriole nests: empty and sagging and looking forlorn.

I float close enough to a wide flat turtle sunning on a log to see scarlet stripes on his face and we stare carefully at one other until he slowly slides off and I swear I can hear him sighing, yet another human has interrupted my nap.

Women speed by on the riverside trail and some wave and call out a hello, and I wonder if a man gliding alone on a glassy green river seems romantic.

Young perfume from budding olives embraces me gently with intimate arms, and I know this is where I want to be.

 

Roger Baker is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The book tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human heart.  The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.

Walk in the Woods

At the start of a seven-mile walk on the Dark Trail in Settlement Canyon, a flash of bright color and a chirp caught my attention.  In the branches not three six from me perched a gorgeous Western Tanager, red head, yellow breast.  It inclined its eye to me, and twittered a greeting, then leapt away.  How cheerful the encounter left me; how uplifted and inspired.  (I took this photo of a Western Tanager in 2007.)

WALK IN THE WOODS

Tanager of the West
yellow breast beaming
scarlet head brilliant under blue sky and sun
how kind of you to incline
to chirp to me
and warble.

Every Tanager and Towhee and Flicker,
I find,
every Fritillary and Mourning Cloak and Blue,
I see,
every walk in the woods:
instructs and enlightens,
uplifts and improves.

Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The book tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit.  The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.

Looking Up

The night’s newly-fallen snow coaxed me into the canyon for a solitary hike.  As I trudged along, often sinking up to my knees, I tried to focus upward on the beauty around me.  But I have noticed how often I focus downward on the trail and miss seeing that beauty.  This poem is about perspective, about looking up to see and to have our soul enriched and uplifted.

LOOKING UP

Hiking
this precarious trail
I am guilty
of looking always down
at the rocks and roots
that would send me sprawling,
tumbling, bleeding

I am missing it:
streaks of Tanager and Goldfinch
leaves green upon green
Oregon grape blossoms: yellow cream
orange-lichened branches arching over
blue sky above

this Black-capped Chickadee
sings to me
demanding I stop
insisting I look up
to see her
to see the world
and I invite her to come into me
and to fly around freely in my soul

Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The book tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit.  The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.

Sparrows

Hundreds of House Sparrows took up residence in Harvey’s chicken and pigeon coops, eating several pounds of expensive lay mash and pellets a day, squeezing easily through iconic hexagonal chicken wire.  Our project together on my recent visit to Enterprise was to sparrow-proof the coops.  We measured, cut, and stapled fine mesh screen to the coop’s frames, over the chicken wire.  “Poor spugs,” Harvey chuckled, feeling half sorry for the little birds, with Winter coming.  “Don’t worry,” I ribbed, “they’ll just get to know your neighbors better.”  And we laughed.  Stepping through a narrow coop door to tack up some screen, I felt a mystical change in the air, and knew instantly I had a poem.

SPARROWS

hexagonal holes
in the chicken wire fence
contain
the gentle hens
perhaps
the neighborhood’s shy red fox
an escaped white-pelted mink
but not the house sparrows
who land and poke through
with ease
to gorge on lay mash
yes:
chicken wire was made for sparrows

entering the coop
through the narrow coop door
taut spring twanging
I feel a change
in the air
though the air within
is the same
as the air without
passing sparrow-like through
hexagonal holes
but I sense
I have entered
that mystical zone
where tame hens lay perfect eggs
and chortle
and brood
where brown-eyed mice scurry for mash morsels
where startled sparrows swirl
in a tight and dusty vortex
darting out past the propped door
for the last time
before it closes
newly-clad
with tight-holed screen

Harvey with his wife Mary

Harvey and moi in front of the homing pigeon coop

Hexagonal chicken wire overlain with fine screen

Harvey, Mary, and me on our way to church

Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The book tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit.  The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.

On the Jordan

Utah’s Jordan River meanders northward for 50 miles from Utah Lake to the Great Sale Lake.  I have enjoyed kayaking sections of the river with family recently, finding it a beautiful, peaceful, contemplative place, though a challenge to paddle upstream in spots.  I have also enjoyed riding the riverside trail on my bicycle.  I wrote this poem after my third paddle during which I grieved over the recent death of my nephew.  The glassy, calm water, the Great Blue Heron and Belted Kingfisher, the signs of fresh beaver chew, the tree branches arching over the water, all served to sooth my mind a bit.  Water has a way of doing that.  Enjoy.

ON THE JORDAN

down here
low
on the water
so much fades away
unseen
beyond the banks
no buildings
no cars
no traffic lights;
on the water ahead
reflections of sky and trees
behind, a gentle wake
and the river stretches forth
forever, it seems
around gentle bends
all overhung by drooping tree boughs
reaching over and down
for me to paddle
under and around

Kingfisher is belted
brawny in the neck
tall-crested
offended
at my nearness
swooping low
over his reflection
with a chiding cackle;
I chase him from tree to tree
downstream
to the edge of his territory
where he turns
to brave me and my boat
and fly
upstream
excreting as he passes

Heron is indeed
great and blue
perched on a dead-fall
as I round a curve
and hold my paddles still
floating toward
silent and slow;
she grows anxious
turning her big-beaked head
quickly left and right and left and right
on her tall and slender neck
and she leaps to fly
slow-beating wings out
their full six feet;
an irritated trill
downstream

Sparrow, white-crowned
hops about
unconcernedly
on a bed of green algae
and assorted human garbage
beer cans, basketballs
soda cups, sneakers
caught in the branches
of a fallen tree

the river flows slowly
and I can paddle
upstream and down
with even strokes of equal ease
dipping left and pulling back
dipping right and pulling back
reaching forward—and pulling back
water sprinkling

thoughts glide and eddy
opaque
like the brown water
reflecting
sky and trees
thoughts stuck
in the muddy muck
like the butt of a green Russian Olive limb
chewed and planted
last night
by a beaver

Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The book tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit.  The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.

Empty Arbor

I worked for years to convince grape vines to grow up my arbor.  I imagined an arbor crisscrossed with verdant vines, heavy clusters of green and red grapes hanging down, and me sitting in a chair underneath, in grape-shade, pleasantly paralyzed by grape and wild flower and spice garden perfume.  But the vines never grew more than a few feet high before turning brown and dying.  Too much water?  Not enough iron or acid to compensate for the alkaline soil?  It no longer matters.  The grape arbor became my bird arbor, hosting many pretty species year-round.

EMPTY ARBOR

Bird feeders swing empty from nails pounded in the arbor.
After years of compost, fertilizer, water, and iron,
the vines still grow sickly and yellow, vines that grow no grapes.
I once dreamed of the arbor covered in a dense green,
with plump, hanging clusters of white and purple grapes.

Bird houses nailed to the arbor sit vacant,
the entrance holes too large or two small, too high or too low,
or too exposed to climbing cats,
vacant but for teaming yellow jackets that relish dark nooks.

The finches prefer the spiny blue spruce nearby.
Who knows where the sparrows and blackbirds live?
But they visit by the hundred, chirping and chasing, cracking at shells.

I must fill the swinging feeders
for the little birds that descend to my empty arbor.

Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The book tells the true life story of an obscure and magical farm road and its power to transform the human spirit.  The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.

Birdsong Scratchers

My son Caleb loves to wood carve.  And paint.  And draw.  Creations of all kinds.  Caleb carved these charming bird-beak back scratchers out of tough Russian Olive wood collected near Rabbit Lane.  He has created an Etsy account where you can see each of these awesome artistic bird-beak-scratchers highlighted individually.  Pay a visit; take a look.  Way to go Caleb!

(Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.  The book tells the true life story of an obscure and magical farm road and its power to transform the human spirit.  The book is available in print and for Kindle at Amazon.  See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.)

Through Winter’s Window

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Working at my home office today while convalescing after foot surgery, a little flock of finches and sparrows landed in the crabapple tree outside my window and began to eat the tiny pea-sized fruits.  A living poem, I thought.  Having promised myself never to deny, or even to delay, inspiration, I wrote the poem that came: Through Winter’s Window.  I hope you find it a spot of warmth on this freezing Winter day.

THROUGH WINTER’S WINDOW

fidgety finches, purple bibbed,
nibble nervously on
purple crabapple fruits,
not whole berries,
but tiny snatches and pecks,
wiping beaks on branches
when the sticky pulp sticks

watching from within walls, me,
through gridded, two-paned glass,
through slanted shutters
and dark nylon micro screen;
still I see the fidgety finches,
joined, now, by sparrows
brown on brown

round, scarlet leaves of fall
have fallen; only the marble
fruits hang on
though winds gust, throwing snow,
and winter sun appears
a weak old bulb
on the world’s periphery

but the red-throated finches
and striped sparrows land in
a happy-dozen flock to nibble and talk,
to swipe and nibble and talk,
seeing not nor caring
that I watch
unhearing from inside

Mr. Robin

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Riding my bicycle home from work the other day I noticed an American Robin standing proud and tall in the midst of deluging lawn sprinklers. He knew where to be to pluck juicy earthworms from the saturated turf. And he knew how to keep cool in the 100-degree heat. What caught my attention most was his bearing of obvious satisfaction, his beak lifted slightly, contemplating his idyllic surroundings. I couldn’t help putting pen to paper.

MR. ROBIN

Mr. Robin
stands tall
beak above the plane
eyes gleaming
in thick lawn sprinkler
mist, knowing
he is in the right place at the right time

Kingbird

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The Western Kingbird is one of my favorite birds.  It is unremarkable in size, color, song, or other characteristics enjoyed by more glamorous birds.  Its only coloration is a slight yellow-green on the breast.  But I love to watch the Kingbird’s frenetically acrobatic flight as it catches insects on the wing.  And I love listening to them from where they sit perched on the top of fence posts and power poles, singing an indecipherable electronica, devoid of tune but fascinating nonetheless.  Every morning when I leave for work, and every evening upon my returning home, a little Kingbird calls to me with a friendly whistle.  Today he let me take this picture as he perched on my wall with a grasshopper in his beak.  Enthralled with my new friend, to whose whistles I always offer my own greeting of “Hello little Kingbird,” I wrote this poem.

KINGBIRD

You are always
there, in that same spot,
on the top
of the fence post,
little Kingbird.

You twitter
at me, so I will
look to you,
find you, again
in that place,
tidy Kingbird.

You catch
and hold my gaze, then
twitch and twitter,
yellow Kingbird.

A quick hop,
an acrobatic
flap after
an airborne bug,
quick little Kingbird.

And you wing away
with a twitter
and a whistle
until tomorrow,
friendly Kingbird.

Songbird

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Photo by Liddy Mills

My friend Elizabeth found an injured bird yesterday, a European Starling, and took it in.  Many people think of Starlings as junk birds.  I know of farmers who pay boys to kill as many as they can.  But Elizabeth took it in.  She fed it, watered it, and wrapped it in cloth.  Elizabeth named it Songbird.  She sang to Songbird, and, as she sang, Songbird fluffed its feathers and watched her.  She placed Songbird on a bed of straw, but the bird kept trying to come to her as she sang. “I held him as he took his last breath,” Elizabeth sadly recounted.  “I hope he understood that some of us humans care.”  She buried Songbird in the yard today, on the Sabbath.  “Songbird deserved a burial,” she said.  Elizabeth’s caring heart touched mine, and I wrote this poem, near midnight.

SONGBIRD

I crashed
and lay crumpled
in your townhouse yard.

You scooped me up
and sang to me
a song.

“Hello Songbird.”

You cradled me in a cloth
and stroked my feathered head.

Sing to me
          a song.

You watered me
and laid me in a bed of straw.

Sing to me
          a song.

You kept the cats
away.

Sing to me
          a song.

You cried when I died,
and you buried me
in your townhouse yard.

You sang to me
a song.

For another story about trying to save an injured bird, see Chapter 37: Of Caterpillars and Birds at my blog page Rabbit Lane: Memoir.

Thistle Seed

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I love wild birds.  Each visual and aural encounter with a bird inspires me, lifts my spirit somehow, and causes me to stop what I’m doing and to watch and listen.  “Do you hear that?” I’ll ask my children as we walk on Rabbit Lane.  “That’s the cry of the Red-shafted Northern Flicker.  Now every time you hear that lonesome call, you’ll know who it is, and can watch.  See?  There he goes?”  The Meadowlark sings the most beautiful and complex melody.  Common Sparrows twitter chaotically, wooing mates in the tree branches.  Red-winged Blackbirds whistle and dive in for a sunflower snack.  Mourning Doves coo softly and sadly.  I hope you enjoy this prose poem about some wild birds in the Rabbit Lane neighborhood.

THISTLE SEED

Small striped Siskin grasps a high twig with black-wire feet, glancing repeatedly downward, wishing someone would fill the hanging thistle seed bag.

Two Red Tails sit close on a high bare branch watching the fields together for a mouse or a vole or a gopher that might poke its snout up through the snow. Which one will fly?

A thousand yellow-shafted Northern Flickers crowd a copse of gambel oaks and mountain maples, each of the thousand chatting earnestly to the other nine-hundred ninety-nine. The red-shafted flies alone, flapping then gliding close-winged, after sounding a solitary cry.

Kestrel finds its way into the coop, with no room to dive and where the chickens are ten times its size, and cannot see the way out. Brian grapples it with leather gloves and sets it free to fly, not before noticing the beautiful markings on its face, the scalpel beak, and the black glossy gleam in its eyes.

Bald Eagle came only once to our cottonwoods and stared down at me as I stood stupefied.

Kingfisher

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(Belted Kingfisher by Caleb Baker-2015)

Driving to church one morning, I noticed a Belted Kingfisher perched on an electric wire suspended over Stansbury Lake.  What a strikingly beautiful bird.  I wondered about his perspective on the world from that perch.  All through church I thought more about the kingfisher and what he saw than I did about the sermons and what they taught.  I wondered what he saw, what he felt, what he thought about, what it must be like to dive like a missile into the water, then rise with a writing minnow.  Sitting in my pew I wrote this poem.  My family thought I was taking copious notes on the sermons.  (Thanks to my son Caleb for this excellent drawing of a Belted Kingfisher.  The smudge is from the best of many scans, not his pencil).

KINGFISHER

Kingfisher,
watching from your high-wire perch,
looking down upon the world,
upon the water—
what is it that you see?

Kingfisher,
diving from your elevated view,
wings folded,
a yellow-beaked torpedo—
what was it that you saw?

Kingfisher,
fluffing your feathers dry,
back at your vigilance place,
the minnow having slid down your gullet—
what was it that it saw?

Kingfisher,
flying on your blues and blacks from your high-wire perch
into the nook of a sheltering tree,
the waning sun still warming—
what will you see tomorrow?

Dove Season

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In September I hear the plinking of low caliber (but still lethal) rifles through Erda’s country neighborhoods as hunters harvest pretty Mourning Doves and Eurasian Collared Doves from where they sit perched on power lines, fence posts, and tree branches.  I find it hard to believe that the State and County governments allow and even license such hunting.  I find it hard to believe that people still go to the trouble of making pigeon pie.  I believe the birds are simply killed.  To these hunters I say, please leave my pretty doves alone.  Let the hawks and falcons do the harvesting.  This poem further expresses these sentiments.  (See the post Of Boys, Pigeons, and an Evil Rooster for more on doves and pigeons.)

DOVE SEASON

A soft crying floats down
from the cottonwoods and power lines
to mingle with the morning mist:
a penetrating, mysterious cooing,
haunting calls of ghosts in the trees.

Pushing off from tree branches and the tops of fence posts,
doves’ gray tails fan wide with white-border bands,
wings beat powerfully with percussive whirring.

A .223 rifle cracks, pop, pop-pop,
plinking doves off power lines like cheap arcade prizes.
A shotgun shouts its BANG!
obliterating delicate birds in a whirl of flying
feathers twisting in air as they fall.
Another open season
to “harvest” my pretty mourning doves.

I think that I may write to the County government,
ask my elected officials why:
Most Honorable Commissioners:
Is there such an overabundance of doves,
as to create an unbearable nuisance,
as to pose an unarticulated threat,
that you feel compelled to countenance this slaughter?
Or do you dispense merely a license to kill,
a tolerance found in pioneer history that
modern man delights to perpetuate?
Please consider
shooing the rifles off our roads,
chasing the guns from so near our homes.
Please consider
letting the harmless doves alone
to grace my morning walks
with their woeful cries that take me
to the edge of somewhere sweet and tender,
laced with loss and mystery.
Sincerely, your humble constituent (voter).
I may write.

Mornings seem quieter than they ought to be
September-time.

Round Shells Resting

(The following piece tells in greater detail about the construction of my chicken coop and its inhabitants.  The article was originally published in 2003 in the Tooele County Magazine by the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin.  I offer it here as an appendix to Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.)

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The weathered hinges creek as I enter my patchwork coop.  Its quiet inhabitants, rudely rousted from their roosting, suddenly jabber with a cacophony of clucks, crows, honks, and coos.  They run nervously about as I turn over a bucket and occupy a corner of their space.

I sit quiet and motionless, and the chatter calms as their anxiety fades.  Soon they ignore me and go about their normal bird business: pecking at mash, scratching through straw, drinking from water they muddied the moment it was poured, brooding on freshly laid eggs, and general roosting.

This is where I come for quiet contemplation.  Here I am free from the suit and necktie that pay the mortgage but strangle my dreams.  If I sit long enough, I begin to see again a glimmer of who I am.

In the coop, the delicate fragrance of fresh, dry straw soothes my frazzled nerves.  An impressive portfolio of molted feathers decorates the room in abstract patterns that appear a mere mess to the unenlightened.  Eggs nestle comfortably, softly, in beds of straw—a perfect still life of brown, white, and pastel-green ovals.

I soak in the simplicity and innocence of feathered life.  I silently bless the absence of drool and bark and bray.  I relish the moment’s escape from trivial chatter and from the weight of the world’s woes.  My birds demand nothing of me.  I feed them; they eat.  I water them; they drink.  I leave them alone; they leave me alone.  We are together in a four-walled world of quiet being—no doing allowed—happily minding our own business.

* * *

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My chicken coop is unique in all the world.  It follows no blueprint or pattern.  Its configuration is determined wholly by the dimensions of the pallets that previously carried snowmobiles and four-wheelers to the local dealer.  The pallets were free, except for one blue fingernail, five stitches in a knuckle, and three dings in my truck.  Scrap fiberboard sides the pallets, with old storm windows framed into the south and east corners for winter light and warmth.

The finished product stands twelve by eight, ten feet tall in the front and six in the back, with more pallets nailed together forming the roof.  After driving the last nail, I stood back and admired my beginner’s handiwork.  Beautiful, I thought with pride.  The chickens seemed pleased, too.  A month later, Grandpa offered to cover the mottled scrap wood with exterior wood siding, and the roof with corrugated aluminum.  He said it would last longer that way—he was right, of course—but I could tell he was concerned about preserving my property value.

* * *

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Chickens and ducks share the coop.  Sometimes the billed birds peck at the beaked, but the coop is spacious enough to permit these distant cousins to live together in seeming familial friendship.  Maybe they merely tolerate each other.  I suppose at any moment an invisible tension could erupt into a flurry of feathers.

Despite both being fowl, however, they are really nothing alike.  They eat the same food—grain, mash, bugs—whatever is available.  But chickens peck with sudden snaps of the neck that bring whiplash to mind.  The hungrier they are the faster they peck.  At feeding time their heads lurch toward the grain with such ferocity that my head hurts, and I wonder what cushions their small brains from becoming mush against their skulls.  Their hunger satisfied, they meander around the coop, casually pecking at straw, feathers, grains of sand, but still with the same mechanical whip-snap motion.

Ducks, on the other hand, definitely don’t peck.  In fact, their heads remain practically motionless while they feed.  The head merely points the bill, which opens and shuts with remarkable speed, as if plugged into a vibrator.  My slow eyes perceive a vague blur as bills pulverize a strand of straw into straw-dust.

In contrast to whip-snapping chicken heads, chicken feet unfold and flex with a smooth, fluid motion.  This fact holds true with all chicken gaits, but becomes obvious to my eyes with the slow, searching gait employed in casual grazing and roost pacing.  I notice suddenly that each chicken breed has its own foot color.  White Leghorn: yellow.  Rhode Island Red: orange.  Araucana: steel gray.  Golden Sebright Bantam: blue-gray.

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Red combs flop around carelessly with the chickens’ bobbing heads.  Some combs reach over an inch tall; others resemble short, blunt spikes barely protruding from the head.  While the height of a chicken’s comb depends partly on its breed, the comparative height within a single breed indicates a hen’s egg cycle.  A tall comb indicates productivity.  A short comb tells me she’s taking a break for a few weeks.

I wondered one evening, Just what does a chicken comb feel like?  I had to know.  To find out, I employed my practiced chicken-catching technique to apprehend the subject of my curiosity.  I cornered a long-combed hen and inched forward slowly, rocking back and forth on wide-planted feet.  With a sudden stretch I grabbed her.  Terror struck her: she squawked hysterically, struggling to break free.  I cupped her head gently in my hand to calm her down.  Then I stroked her comb.  It was rough and firm, but fleshy, like an old, cracked rubber scraper.  I sat on my bucket and smoothed her ruffled feathers.  “Don’t worry, little one,” I whispered.  “I won’t hurt you.”  I began to savor this simple moment and to appreciate this creature who lives unfettered by the concerns and dysfunctions of humanity.

* * *

One evening, as I sat contemplating nothing, I watched a tiny field mouse skitter along a lateral plank, keeping to the shadowed corners.  It paused behind each pallet vertical like a thief slinking behind trees before a caper.  Yet I just couldn’t quite make the metaphor work: the tiny black eyes, soft, glossy coat, tissue paper ears, and delicate, bony hands painted a picture of sweetness, not deceit.  The tiny creature just wanted a little food, after all—and the chickens’ leftovers would do quite nicely.  The image of a poor vassal gleaning the fief’s fields fitted better.  But the chickens’ crumbs were far from subsistence: they were a bounty to the contented mouse.  Perched on petite haunches, it ate undisturbed from a kernel it turned in its delicate hands.

As long as I sat quietly, the mouse seemed to not be aware of my presence.  I noticed that the loud crowing of the big rooster registered not the slightest tremor in the mouse’s calm nibbling.  Neither did the soft hen clucking or high-pitched Bantam crowing.  Hmmn, I thought, and whistled a few notes.  No sign of rodent distress.  A little humming—still no observable trauma.  It must have thought I was just a big, motionless chicken, as oblivious as the rest.  Then I snapped my fingers with a crack.  The mouse jumped with a start and disappeared.  But my little friend soon peeked its dark bright eyes—small, but huge on its tiny snout—out from behind a board.  The mouse blended naturally with the setting: warm straw, yummy grain, lots of places to hide, and freedom from felines.

* * *

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Not only roosters like to roost.  Roosting, among chickens at least, rises almost to the exaltation of eating.  Old two-by-fours form their roosts, crossing the coop at different heights and angles.  As evening comes, the chickens instinctively return to the coop and hop up to segregated spaces.  The full-grown chickens claim the highest roost.  This Spring’s juveniles take the middle.  No one chooses the lowest.

I have never actually witnessed any pecking to this pecking order.  But I surmise that, when I am not watching, the mature birds throw off any pubescent ones who presume to attempt the highest roost, in a sort of king-of-the-roost affair.  I engineered some equity in their social order by positioning the roosts so as to protect the younger birds from getting dropped on by their roosting superiors.

Ducks don’t roost.  They prefer to cuddle comfortably together in the straw.  Long necks sway their heads back to settle in a fluff of wing feathers.  From this position, the ducks’ heads appear to rise neck-less from the middle of their backs.

* * *

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The crowing instinct has recently possessed my daughter’s young Bantam.  With no one to coach it, it is learning nonetheless.  But its attempts require an effort painful for me to watch.  Dropping its wings slightly, the young Bantam’s crow unfurls from the tip of its tail feathers through its small body, which contorts like a crawling caterpillar, and releases itself as a wheezy little croak, sounding like an old bicycle bulb horn.  Between crows, it struts around confidently, like a politician at his election party.

* * *

The big Araucana rooster paces inside its rabbit cage, to where it was banished for its summer misdeeds.  An amiable young rooster, the adult became arrogant and aggressive.  As I gathered eggs one morning, it flew at me, claws first, like an eagle swooping upon a giant rodent.  My denim-clad legs felt like they’d been struck with a willow switch, and I was glad I hadn’t worn shorts.  But the unprovoked attack annoyed me more than hurt.  A swift boot kick ended the fight, temporarily at least.  Each visit to the coop replayed the scene: flying claws; boot kick; peace.

Pulling weeds in the flower garden one Saturday, my seven-year-old began screaming hysterically.  I spun around to witness her racing across the grass with the big Araucana trotting after her like a miniature painted ostrich.  Its face devoid of emotion, I nonetheless divined its malicious intent.

With the rooster now securely in the rabbit cage, my children safely gather eggs from the irritated hens, whose pecks, after the rooster attacks, seem to them friendly taps.  I’ll some day expand the coop so the Araucana can enjoy life without ruining it for others.  It is a beautiful bird, after all, with luminescent blue-black tail feathers and a rich golden mien.  In the meantime, it paces endlessly in cramped quarters that cramp its tyrannical style.

* * *

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For the children, discovering the first egg was as exciting as finding hidden candy, not just because it was our first egg, but also because it was green.  Araucanas lay pastel green and blue-green eggs.  Some call the breed the Easter egg chicken, for obvious reasons.  Pre-died, you might say.

Despite the eight identical nesting boxes that line the rear wall, the hens insist on laying in only one box—the second from the right, to be exact.  Even when one hen is brooding a newly-laid egg, another hen, in answer to nature’s urge, oozes herself into the same one-foot by one-foot cubbyhole to lay.  Although they soon both give up on brooding, they continue to lay in the same box, day after day, egg upon egg.  Left uncollected, the eggs soon form a neat, multicolored pile, with the other seven boxes vacant.  The plastic eggs I placed in the other boxes to induce even distribution were pecked open and kicked out.

Each day, the children thrill to gather the eggs in their skirts and run to the kitchen.  At least one egg inevitably suffers a casualty, cracked or dropped along the way, sometimes before it even leaves the coop.  The chickens rush upon the broken egg, devouring its spilled contents in a cannibalistic frenzy.

Each broken egg tempts my irritation.  But a moment’s reflection reminds me that I love my daughters more than my chicken eggs.  Anyway, the majority of eggs usually weather the trip without incident.  I figure we have the chickens not just for the eggs, but for the experience of having chickens and eggs: to earn the rewards of work; to care for something besides ourselves; to nurture life; to find simplicity and peace in the midst of a frantically materialistic world.

Soon to come will be a pallet patchwork addition, with rooms for pheasants, jungle fowl, pigeons, quail, and maybe an exotic breed or two, like the iridescent Japanese golden pheasant.  We’ll admire their remarkable beauty and diversity.  We’ll cry when a raccoon spreads feathers and feet through the field.  We’ll curse as young roosters spur to defend their turf.  And we’ll witness the process of life as old birds die and new life emerges from thin, round shells resting in the straw.

Vultures on a Fence Rail

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I looked southward from where the wind had brought the brief summer rain, and was astonished to see a row of about two dozen turkey vultures perched atop a fence rail, their featherless heads almost glowing red above their black-feathered bodies.  A sight strange enough to inspire a poem.

VULTURES ON A FENCE RAIL

Vultures on a fence rail,
Heads bent low,
Sitting still and bundled
Through a fierce summer squall.

Vultures on a fence rail,
Heads pointed high,
Wide wings spread and warming
To the rainbow and the sun.

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Chapter 46: Of Boys, Pigeons, and an Evil Rooster

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— You’re my big, bald buddy-boo.–
(John-3 to Dad)

As I readied to leave for my Rabbit Lane walk, I noticed a pungent odor from the little boy that hugged my leg.

“I’ll change him,” Angie offered.  “You go ahead.”

Little John (2) responded, “NO—Dadda,” and I felt the dubious honor of being chosen by my son for this special duty. Continue reading

Chapter 43: Trees

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–Boogers are sticky!–
(Hannah-3)

Dead and dying poplars stand along the ditch bank on Rabbit Lane, like sentries propped up against battles long ago lost and won.  Many branches, devoid of leaves, poke absently out and up like ten thousand fingers on stubby arms.  On the oldest, the only leaves huddle close to the trunk, near the base.  Finches and sparrows hop happily amidst the morass for some purpose unknown to me, or for no purpose.  Their nests lie hidden somewhere in dense bushes; no seeds or insects can be found in the spiky tree stubble.  But safety from cats and falcons the branches certainly provide. Continue reading

Chapter 42: Birdhouses

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–There is no sweeter sound than raindrops on the rooftop.–

I love birdhouses and birdfeeders.  Probably because I love birds.  Their often sweet, sometimes cacophonic, twittering and chirping brings me happiness.  Providing them with an endless supply of seeds brings me happiness.  They gather at the feeders on my grape trellis by the hundreds: House Finch, House Sparrow, Pine Siskin, Redwing Blackbird, Mourning Dove, and on occasion some less-often-seen species like Brown Cow Bird, Indigo Bunting, Black-headed Grossbeak, Bullock’s Oriole, and Towhee.  One common sparrow shares the same general markings as its hundred cousins, but appears to be an albino morf, nearly white.  The Western Meadowlark, Western King Bird, and American Robin sing, fly, and hop around nearby, but don’t come to the trellis, being insect and worm eaters.

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But beyond the birds, I enjoy the sight of the little wooden birdhouses mounted on the beams of my grape trellis.  I call it a grape trellis not because it grows grape vines, but because I built it for grape vines and wish it grew grape vines.  For reasons peculiar to the Erda soil, or to my cultivation of that soil, grapes have never grown up my grape trellis, though I have tried many times with several varieties.  After ten years of false starts, the only thing growing on my grape trellis is bird houses.  Each of my children has assembled one or more birdhouses and attached them to the trellis.

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I decided one year to make large bird houses and mount them on poles throughout the yard.  Not content to purchase plastic models from Wal-Mart, and unwilling to pay for more expensive wooden models, I resolved to construct my own.  I drew out several designs that departed from the standard models.  In other words, no squares or rectangles, but unusual trapezoids and even a circle.  I constructed interior frames on the workbench in my shed, then attached gray, weather-worn siding harvested from discarded pallets.  No master woodworker, I awkwardly attached the siding to the frame, and the roof to the house.  Before attaching the roof, I drilled a hole in a bottom frame cross member, inserted a 4-inch-long bolt-head screw, and with a ratchet secured the house frame to the post.

The posts came in various forms from several places.  We found one while on a drive by Black Rock, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake.  The post had washed up on the rocks, worn smooth by years of buffeting by wind, sand, and salt water.  (The salt content of water in the Great Salt Lake exceeds 25%, while the oceans average about 5%.)  We tied the post to the top of our car and brought it home.  Another was an old cedar fence post I found lying broken and discarded in a ditch by the side of the road.  Four-by-four lumber also makes excellent posts.  I made a post for each of my four birdhouse models, cementing three of the posts in a cluster in the bird house garden, with the fourth nearby behind the picket fence.  The fence runs 40 feet from the grape trellis along the garden border to the birdhouse garden.  I made the pickets from old pallets, too.  I seem never interested in building the same thing twice, and built only one of each birdhouse model.  But seeing them each morning on their tall posts as I begin and end my walks on Rabbit Lane brings to me a simple satisfaction.  I would be happier were they inhabited by more birds and fewer yellow jackets.

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Birds

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One of my greatest life’s pleasures is seeing birds in all their colors, hearing birds of all songs and calls.  Though my grapes never grew, I am happy that the birds have come to my arbor.  These Red-winged Blackbirds and House Finches are happily cracking black oil sunflower seeds in the simple feeder Caleb made as a Boy Scout for his Nature merit badge.  I wrote this poem about feeding the birds.

BIRDS

Bird feeders swing empty from nails pounded in the arbor.
After years of compost, fertilizer, water, and iron,
the vines still grow sickly and yellow, vines that grow no grapes.
I once dreamed of the arbor covered in a dense green,
with plump, hanging clusters of white and purple grapes.

Bird houses nailed to the arbor sit vacant,
the entrance holes too large or two small, too high or too low,
or too exposed to climbing cats,
vacant but for teaming yellow jackets that relish dark nooks.

The finches prefer the spiny blue spruce nearby.
Who knows where the sparrows and blackbirds live?
But they visit by the hundreds, chirping and chasing, cracking at shells.

I must fill the swinging feeders
for the little birds that descend to my empty arbor.

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Snipe

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As an older Boy Scout I thought that a Snipe was an imaginary creature which younger scouts were sent to hunt in the Snipe Hunt hoax.  As a younger Scout myself, I never found a Snipe, whatever a Snipe was.  It was not until I was about 35 year old that I learned that a snipe was a real creature, a fairly small water bird with long legs and beak.  It spends its time meandering the irrigation ditch along Rabbit Lane, rising with indignant “peeps” as I trudge by on my walks.  I also learned that the Snipe was responsible for the eerie, haunting reverberating sounds I heard hovering like a fog over the fields at night.  Harvey told me to look up high for the source of the sounds: a Snipe, a brown speck in the high sky, diving and allowing the air to thunder through its wings.  I wrote this poem about this mysterious little creature.

SNIPE

Summer sun settles on high mountain peaks,
igniting heavy cumulus over a burning great salt lake.
A ghostly echo begins to move,
invisible, taunting,
low over twilight’s deep green fields
of pasture grass and alfalfa hay;
a lonely laughter
approaching then receding,
soaring then plummeting,
tumbling, veering,
in sunset’s golden glint,
in late night’s moon-glow,
to vanish at the new sun’s rising—
seen only by those who know whence comes
the haunting, moving echo of the snipe in the evening sky.

Chapter 37: Of Caterpillars and Birds

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–The Goldfinch is a splash of brilliant yellow against the white snow and brown earth.–

The ant hill is the sign of a delicate and sophisticated society, mostly unseen for its largely underground order.  The individual ant is tiny but far from delicate.  It is both formidable worker and fearsome enemy, taking on burdens and adversaries many times its size.  Yet its civilization is vulnerable to destruction by the careless shuffle of a shoe.

* * *

Every year we find Tomato Hornworms on our tomato plants.  The surest worm signs are bare branches, stripped of leaves, and large, barrel-shaped droppings.  When I find a fat caterpillar, I always call the children over to see.  Because of their tomato-leaf-green color and subtle markings, the hornworms are very difficult to see, even though they grow fatter and longer than my index finger.  Tracking them by dung and denuded branch is the quickest way to find them.

My grandfather Wallace, a part-time tomato farmer, detested these pests and hunted them doggedly.  Not needing to make a living from my tomatoes, I can afford to not mind a bare twig here and there.  In my garden, a bare branch is an occasion for excitement: a hornworm hides nearby.  The hornworms, earning their name from the stiff pointed horn on their tail end, don’t eat the tomatoes.  The children think the “callerpittars” are amazing, otherworldly creatures.  John (3) bravely held one in his open palm for a moment, then suddenly exclaimed, “He loves me!”

Unlike many moth and butterfly larvae, tomato hornworms dig into the earth to pupate.  They lie in the ground all Winter long and emerge in the Spring as tomato hornworm Hawk Moths.  Finding a hornworm, I have the children help me to prepare a shoe box with about two inches of loose, moist soil in the bottom.  We feed the caterpillars tomato leaves until their swelling, green bodies disappear to become dark-brown pupae in the soil.  We leave the box outside in a sheltered spot (where the cats won’t dig).  Occasionally we drip a little water on the soil to keep it from totally drying out.  In Spring, with the appearance of the first flowers, we put the box where it can warm in the sunlight, and we watch every day for the hawk moth to emerge.  To escape its pupa shell, the moth emits a liquid substance that dissolves a hole in the shell.  The new moth crawls out and spreads its wet, wrinkled wings and vibrates them rapidly in the sun’s warmth.  The vibrations pump blood from the moth’s body into the wing veins, causing them to spread open and smooth.  The wings quickly dry.  If this procedure is not completed successfully, the moth will never fly.

Hawk moths flit from flower to flower, sometimes chasing each other.  Their wings beat so fast that you see only the vague blur of wings.  The large moths look much like small Hummingbirds, and also enjoy the name Hummingbird Moth.  They feed while flying, like Hummingbirds, uncoiling their long, tubular, hollow proboscis to suck nectar from flowers.  Tomato hornworm moths are particularly striking, with soft red bands on their underwings.

We found a Hummingbird Moth floating in the children’s little wading pool.  We thought for sure that it was dead.  Putting a hand under it and lifting it from the cold water, I found that it moved its legs weakly.  We placed it on the sidewalk in full sunlight.  After a few moments, its wings dried and began to vibrate, circulating blood through the wing veins and warming the body.  The moth was a miniature, self-contained solar heating unit.  It suddenly rose from the sidewalk and flew away in search of nourishment.  We felt a hint of happiness at helping to revivify the moth.

I once gave a large Tomato Hornworm larvae, and a box with soil, to my nephew, Thomas (3).  Months later, he reported to me sadly that his moth had hatched.  Asking him why he was unhappy, he said, “I like the moth, but I miss my caterpillar.”

* * *

The children came running to me with alarm in their faces.

“A hummingbird . . . in the garage!” they gasped, trying to catch their breath.  Following them, I found the double-door up, the garage entirely open, yet the Black-chinned Hummingbird confounded and trapped inside.  Apparently, its instincts drove the tiny bird to fly always upward.  It buzzed around the garage with its beak to the ceiling, and could not see the obvious way out.  It stopped frequently to rest on the highest object it could find.  The bird looked at us nervously as we paced around the garage, but still could not discern the way to freedom.

I could see the hummingbird’s fatigue and hoped that, if I could catch it, it would have sufficient strength to fly away to find food and not fall easy prey to an opportunist cat.  I grabbed the long-handled butterfly net that stood in the corner of the garage.  The net was new enough to have survived active children chasing chickens and cats with it.  I raised the net and cautiously approached the hummingbird.  It jumped from its perch and flew to another resting place.  I quickly followed.  After repeating this for several minutes, I began to get a sense of its evasion pattern, remembering my old butterfly catching days.  Anticipating its next jump, I swung the net ahead of the bird, flipped the net to prevent the bird’s escape, and brought the net quickly but carefully to the cement floor.

Reaching my hand into the net, I wrapped my fingers around the bird tightly enough to keep it from flying away but loosely enough to avoid injuring the delicate creature.  The terrified bird peeped weakly and tried to flutter its trapped wings.  Bringing the tiny bird out from the net, I held it up for the children to see.

“That’s so cool!” one child exclaimed.  Then they all began to clamor, “I want to hold it!  I want to hold it!”

“Go ahead, touch it,” I invited, instructing them how to carefully stroke the iridescent, green feathers and to touch the wiry, black feet.

We walked out of the garage into the Summer sun.  Each child placed their hands under mine, and on the count of three we released the little bird.  It hovered erratically for a moment, then, gathering its bearings and new strength, it flew off to the south.  The hummingbird stopped for a moment at the feeder hanging from the arbor, full of sweet liquid, then flew high into the sky until we could no longer see it.  The children (and I) were thrilled at having touched and seen up close such a tiny, wild, beautiful creature.  We felt happiness inside knowing that we had rescued it and set it free.

* * *

An injured Western Kingbird flopped wildly on the pavement of Church Road near the intersection of Rabbit Lane.  It must have been struck by a passing car.  As I bent to pick it up, it opened its black beak wide and squawked in terror in a desperate but feeble attempt to protect itself from what it could only perceive as the attack of a giant predator.  I carefully folded the injured wing and cradled the bird inside my jacket as I carried it home.

I awoke Laura (9) and invited her help to dress the bird’s injuries.  We swabbed the wounds with disinfecting peroxide.  The bird still pointed its open beak at our awkward fingers, but had stopped verbalizing its protests.  We then wrapped the bird so that both wings were gently pinned against its body.  When the bindings were removed, we reasoned, the strength in the mended wing would match the strength of the good wing.  The wings would gather new strength in concert.  Satisfied that this was the best chance the bird had to heal, we carried it outside to a small, protected pen and set it down upon its feet in the straw.  We hoped we would be able feed and water the bird long enough for it to recover.  We would have to catch bugs, since its diet did not include seeds.

Releasing the bound bird, it immediately fell over onto its face.  The bindings had rendered it completely helpless, like you or I would be if wrapped from head to toe with only our toes exposed for mobility.  It needed its wings for balance as well as for flight.  Discouraged, Laura and I removed all of our careful wrappings and did our best to splint the broken wing.  This less invasive treatment allowed the bird to stand and walk about, but the bandage wouldn’t stay on for the difficulty of attaching it to the wing feathers.

Despite our well-intentioned but fumbling efforts, the Kingbird died after three days.  Still, I was glad we had rescued the bird and attempted to nurse it back to health.  The thought of leaving the frightened bird in the roadway to be smashed by the next passing car saddened me.  Also, handling the small but proud creature, and working to heal it, had worked a change in us.  We felt a greater awe in nature’s wild things and a deeper grief at their loss.

* * *

An old Warbler nest hangs, swaying, from a low willow branch like a balled up, gray woolen sock.  It clings to the branch through the strongest of winds.  Gusts topping 80 miles per hour have neither torn it apart nor pulled it from its suspending branch.

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A lone Crow flies south behind a V-formation of Canada Geese.  It caws loudly despite a large parcel in its beak, defiant toward the fable of the fox and the crow.  This seems to be a smarter, more talented Crow.  Is this Crow lonely or content in its aloneness?  Do the geese communicate, or do they merely find comfort in their raucous propinquity?

A cock Ring-necked Pheasant croaks unseen in the tall grass, nervous at my approach.  When I stop to search with my eyes, he seems to suspect me of bad intentions, and flaps inelegantly into a tree, landing clumsily in its top branches, his feathers thrashing against leafy twigs.  On Rabbit Lane, feathers from a Pheasant hen lay scattered about, chestnut brown barred with beige.  Nearby sits a pile of spent red plastic shotgun shells with brass caps.

When the Robin appears, pulling at worms, I know that Spring is near.  Hummingbirds whir and zoom looking for early flowers.  They light in me a tiny spark of joy that has lain smoldering all Winter.

The Killdeer scream at me, draw me away from their spare nests that lie hidden in the rocks and gravel, flapping their striped wings as if injured.

In a chaotic, white cloud of winged, shrieking voices, whirling and churning around me, charging my senses, thousands of California Gulls descend upon a newly ploughed field next to Rabbit Lane.  I perceive no order in their loose, gregarious grouping, unlike flocks of geese following a leader in formation.  Milling around in search of upturned earthworms, the flock calls raucously, sounding like a thousand tuneless New Year’s Eve noisemakers.  Despite their awful sound, the birds are beautiful: sleek white feathers with gray tips, a red dot on each side of the creamy yellow beak.  In flight, their streamlined bodies and powerful wing beats propel them through the air, with their black webbed feet tucked into their downy white undersides.

At Boy Scout camp at Lake Seneca, New York, the older boys sent me to ask another troop for a left-handed smoke-shifter, then took me on a snipe hunt.  I found neither the device nor the creature.  Only after moving to Erda did I learn that the Snipe is a real creature, a water bird.  Smaller than an Avocet, the Snipe roams the ditches and wetlands, poking its beak into the mud for insects and small crayfish.  On many an evening I strained to discern the source of a soft, ghostly, reverberating sound moving over the farm fields.  But I never found it.  Explaining this mystery to Harvey one afternoon, he told me to look high into the sky whenever I heard the sound.  There, I would see a small dot, the ventriloquistic Snipe.  Flying high, the Snipe turns to dive and roll at breakneck speeds toward the ground.  Wind rushing through its slightly open wings creates the haunting sound.  The Snipe throws the sound somehow from those heights to hover foggily over the fields.  I hear it less and less as the years pass.

The water from Rabbit Lane’s ditch crosses Charley’s pasture diagonally, bogging at the northwest corner.  Twenty or more striped Wilson’s Phalaropes cackle harshly at me as I walk by, their long legs sunk in the bog and their long beaks searching for insects and invertebrates.

Birds twitter in the willow bushes by the irrigation ditch.  Birds sing from the Russian Olive trees.  Birds call and screech and chirp from bushes and branches, from the tops of cedar fence posts and in flight.  How does one describe the song of a bird?  My National Geographic field guide to North American birds assigns all manner of syllabic writing to bird songs and calls, none of which words approach a satisfactory description of the music.  In English, the Crow is synonymous with the “caw.”  These meager descriptions are like saying a note played on the piano sounds like plink, like a model-T horn shouts ba-OO-ga, like a baby’s cry is waaaa.  No euphemistic reduction does justice to the genuine song.  Thanks to Cornell University’s ornithology lab, new bird books allow the reader to push a button and hear each bird’s unique song, sometimes a humble peep, sometimes a glorious, frenetic melody.

The Western Kingbird’s song resembles chaotic, unpatterned electronica.  A Bullock’s Oriole splashes its ember-orange on a canvas of blue-green Russian Olive.

The Western Meadowlark sings frequently from the tops of cedar tree fence posts.  Even driving at 60 miles per hour with the window cracked, I can hear its piercing but beautifully melodious song.  Attempts to whistle the tune bog it terribly down and omit half the notes, each critical, resulting in a sometimes recognizable but always shabby imitation.

A Black-chinned Hummingbird perches on a strand of stiff barbed wire, surveying vast fields of grass.  Its black beak points as straight and as sharp as the silver barbs, yet the bird possesses a softness and a beauty incongruous with the hard wire stretched tight.

A Field Crescent flits from place to place on Rabbit Lane’s asphalt, flying a low dance around my walking feet, making momentary spots of brightness against the ubiquitous gray.

On Tuesday

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The arrival of new animal life brings incomparable happiness to children, both exhilaration and tenderness, as this poem portrays, written from the perspective of my then 8-year-old daughter Laura.  The ducklings pictured above are being raised as I post by Hannah, my youngest (with a little prodding from Dad).

ON TUESDAY

On Tuesday
Dad brought home the chicks:
six day-old ducklings
in a little cardboard box:
2 yellow-green,
2 green-brown, and
2 black.
And 2 turklings!
Dad says we’ll eat the turkeys
when they’re grown,
so I’m not allowed to name them.
But the ducklings are my very own.
Already I have named them:
Pumpernickle and Blackbeak,
Wingers and Fuzzles,
Nester and Dandylion.
They paddle prodigiously in the bathtub,
with water not too cold and not too warm.
They shiver and protest at
being wrapped up tightly in a towel.
They huddle under the heat lamp
and peep when I approach.
They bustle about my feet as
I sit in their pen on a cinderblock stool.
They don’t complain when I pluck them up,
but nestle comfortably up under my chin,
as if I were their mamma.
My ducklings are my friends.
They tell me they like me
with their peeping peep peeps.
They tell me they accept me
as they cuddle and becalm.
They tell me they’ll miss me
by the way they look at me
as I walk away for the night.
“Don’t worry, little ducks,” I tell them.
“I’ll be back
Tomorrow.”

Listen!

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At virtually any time of the day or night on Rabbit Lane, I can hear birds singing or cawing or screeching or chirping.  This evening, as the sun set over the Great Salt Lake, I heard Ravens, Red-winged Blackbirds, an American Kestrel, House Sparrows, and House Finches.  Opening our ears to the sounds of birds is enriching enough, but opening our hearts to their beauty is a meditation, an uplifting of the soul, a catharsis.  Do you listen to the birds singing around you?

LISTEN

Listen!

A robin! A robin!
Chirping on the branch.

A king bird! A king bird!
Whistling on the fence post.

A finch! A finch!
Twittering on the feeder.

A lark! A lark!
Singing in the meadow.

A dove! A dove!
Cooing in the morning.

A snipe! A snipe!
Tumbling through the evening sky.

An owl! An owl!
Screeching from the snag.

Can you hear them, too?

Here Come the Geese

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Gaggles of Canada Geese flying in “V” formation are a quintessential site over Erda.  The geese fly from Canada to the Great Salt Lake shore land preserves and Fish Springs conservation area, continuing on south.  Some stay all winter long.  I am happy to see them at any time of the year.  And seeing them always comes with hearing them, for they all honk to each other as they fly.  This short poem celebrates these geese.  (See the post Chapter 34: Of Ducks and Geese for more on geese and Rabbit Lane.)

HERE COME THE GEESE

Here come the geese
in noisy, rough formation,
beaks pointed and necks outstretched
in determined expectation,
pushed on by shorter days and cooler nights,
singing their single purpose,
to flee the north for warmer climes.

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Away I Must Fly

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I thrill with each dash of color, each beating wing, and each trilling song from Rabbit Lane’s abundant bird life.  I admire the Red-tailed Hawk couple regarding me with nonchalance as they mind their nest.  Barn owls shooting from their tree holes at sunset fill me with mystery.  The tweets, chirps, and twitters of little songbirds never fail to lift my spirits.  At times I regard their cheerfulness and freedom with envy.  I wish I could flit and fly and sing like they do.  This little-boy yearning, coupled with man-sized troubles, inspired the following poem.

AWAY I MUST FLY

Away
I must fly,
sang the restless little bird,
Away
I must fly.
Away.
Only for a moment.
Only for a day.
Only for a season.
Then back I’ll fly,
to stay.
But today,
sang the restless little bird,
I must fly
Away.
Away.

Chapter 34: Of Ducks and Geese

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–Away I must fly.–

From over a hundred yards away, I hear the enormous sound of what surely is a hundred geese cackling in loud cacophony.  I cannot see them in the pre-dawn darkness.  But in the growing light of my return walk, I make out the small gaggle of only a dozen very loud domesticated white geese as it mills under the venerable Cottonwood in Craig’s pasture, making its only-as-a-goose-can-do honking. Continue reading

Chapter 32: Snow Angel

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–Sweetness: that which induces a slow rolling of the tongue, a gentle closing of the eyes,
and an escape from the lips of a sensuous, sighing, “ahh.”–

Two young girls rode their bicycles down Church Road coming from the direction of Rabbit Lane.  Working in the yard, I looked up just as one bicycle, ridden by the younger girl, slid on a gravelly patch, and she fell face forward onto the asphalt.  I ran toward the crying girl, about six years old, with my concerned children following close behind.  Blood oozed from abrasions on the girl’s knee and elbow and cheek, and a tooth was broken. Continue reading

Chapter 21: Cricket Chorus

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Hyrum, you’re my little bug.

Under low, heavy clouds and a light, misty rain, the lighthouse beam shines in a shaft for miles as it slowly sweeps the sky. Continue reading

Old Cottonwood (Poem)

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A century ago, Erda’s church-going farmers planted a row of Cottonwood twigs behind the clay-block church building.  A decade ago, a bald eagle stared down at me from one of these Cottonwood tree’s 50-foot height.  Today, the Cottonwoods are gone, felled by my saw, replaced by the neighbor’s new barn.  I can still see the majestic trees in family photos and in my memory as I walk home from Rabbit Lane, past Old Cottonwood, a 17-foot circumference behemoth.  This poem is for that and the other great pioneer trees that sit split on our porches and burn in our stoves.  (See the Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog, Chapter 5: Old Cottonwood post, for more on Cottonwood trees.)

OLD COTTONWOOD

The old cottonwood is dead,
dead for many years.
Leaves have flown to join with new soil.
Sun-bleached bark has sloughed and fallen.
But the aspect of its reaching is preserved.
The trunk holds steady, the unseen roots entrenched.
A thousand branches reach sharply upwards,
spiny fingers feeling upwards,
still swaying, though stiffly.
Red-tailed Hawk still reconnoiters from a favorite high branch.
Great-horned Owl still softly calls its mate.
And Kestrel now rests in its cavities.

Chapter 3: Hawk

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–In the presence of goodness, good people rejoice.–

My boots crunch loudly on the loose and frozen gravel, rousing common sparrows from their cold roosts in the willow and wild rose bushes.  Despite being leafless in December, the bushes seem an impenetrable tangle of twigs and dead leaves.  I hear, rather than see, the birds fluttering and tweeting within.  I have bundled myself against the bitter cold, and wonder how these almost weightless creatures survive Winter.  I imagine them huddled in their houses, mostly protected from the wind, their feathers puffed out to gather insulating air, with temperatures sinking to just above zero.  I marvel that these birds constantly peep and sing, fluttering about with the energy of jubilation.  I envy them their unconditional happiness.  I have come to appreciate their enthusiasm, to rely upon their unassailable cheerfulness. Continue reading

Chapter 2: To the Country

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–You deserve a palace made of gold. (But even a gold palace needs to be kept clean.)–
(Dad to Erin-8)

We moved to the country in the Spring of 1998.  Our new home offered so much room for the children to explore and play and run around.  They tromped through the tall, tan field grass making twisting paths that were not even visible from the house.  Once the children entered the grass they couldn’t see out (or be seen from without).  They were pioneers, blazing new trails in the wilderness, whacking at the grass with stick swords. Continue reading