Category Archives: Birds

Kingbird

20160702_134752 crop01

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

IMG-20160430-WA0002[1]

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

20150516_115742

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

Kingfisher by Caleb-jpg0002

(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

100_3741

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.)

20150801_182431

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.

* * *

20150801_181611

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.

* * *

20150801_181711

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.

20150801_181955

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.

* * *

20150801_181927

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.

* * *

20150801_181545

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.

* * *

20150801_181852

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

20150329_095848

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.

20150804_095617