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‘That is a cardinal,” my husband whinged as he stood dripping wet, his towel wrapped around his waist; “not a Baltimore oriole.”
I could hardly be blamed for not having my glasses on at that unearthly hour. I’d called him out of the bath to see the bird. I thought perhaps the orioles were back, because we’ve had them other summers.
In our old house, the one we left eight years ago, there were birds chirping, flitting and singing all day. We had planted every variety of shrub, vine and bush we could think of to entice them to stick with us. We even bought a book called How to Attract Birds to Your Garden. The only problem was that in the large yard the birds were far away. I heard them, but seldom saw them.
Now, in our new wee downsized house, the birds are so up close and personal that I wouldn’t be surprised to find one perched on my teapot.
It makes for hours of fun, if you ask me. We sit on the back porch and watch the hummingbirds dive-bomb one another in an effort to protect their territory.
The Baltimore orioles, when they come, flash orange feathers against a bowl of blue sky.
A downy woodpecker, who seems to be training for a job with a Mike Holmes TV show by the skill he has exhibited in drilling holes through our Carolinian maple, pecks through the evening hours, not knowing that we watch his every move.
We’ve planted the back fence with Russian Giant sunflowers to attract goldfinches, their yellow plumage a welcome sight come autumn.
What makes it even better is that we live near a marsh, so in spring we can watch the birds’ migration patterns. The first to arrive are red-winged blackbirds, chirping among the reeds near the shore.
My heron (he’s mine, you see) waits for me on my morning walk down the hill to the water. He fishes for his breakfast year in and year out. Where he goes in winter I’m not sure. I wonder if there is a Mrs. Heron or Heron children? I only see him, waiting with patience for a fish to come swimming by so that he can snap it up with his lovely long beak and take it home.
Hawks swoop, circle and float on thermals as they return from their crossing of Lake Ontario. Some dark nights, as I lay curled in half-slumber, I relish the gentle honking of the Canada Geese as they fly back and forth across the small stretch of water nearby. An owl hoots in the woods across the park. One summer evening last year, we stood silently in the road, watching him hold court at the top of a neighbour’s gargantuan pine.
We’ve had a name plate made up for our small house. It says Dove Cottage, for two reasons: It evokes Wordsworth and the poetic image of a host of golden daffodils dancing in the breeze under our front window; and we both love the soft cooing sounds of the mourning doves. They remind us of beach holidays taken when the children were young, when the doves’ early-morning chortling smoothed our way into summer days.
I bought field glasses for a trip to Scotland recently, convinced that I could turn myself into a Canadian version of one of those tweedy British twitchers, as they refer to birdwatchers over there. Our friends, who live atop a rolling green hill where the soft mist of the haar reaches up the glen, pointed out the lapwings, their white underbodies contrasting with jet-black upper feathers, the smaller English robins and the oystercatchers whose long orange beaks are perfect for snapping up tasty treats on the shore.
But I never once used those field glasses; they hung by my side like a broken wing. It seems you are actually supposed to know ahead of time which bird you are looking at, or for, and what kind of habitats she enjoys – in addition to her Latin name and terminology such as “nesting pairs” and “brooding.”
The ability to recognize their various twitterings is important, too. Each species has an avian language of its own. (When we hear the owl say “Who cooks for you?” it DOES sound like English. But what do the twitchers in Vietnam or Colombia hear?)
I am pretty sure that if there had been a vote that lovely afternoon on a Dumfriesshire hillside I would have been banished to the glen, my feathers a wee bit ruffled.
Until I can safely sort out my orioles from my cardinals, glasses on or not, there is no hope for me of membership in any bird club. And until I can hold my breath and keep my mouth shut when Catharus ustulatus, or Swainson’s thrush, shows up, no one will want me out in the bushes or hiding in a bird blind with them.
Just one loud exhalation from me (“Wow! Look at that!”), one sneeze, one finger raised to scratch my nose, and there’d be a whir of tiny feathers taking off into the underbrush, not to be seen again for another hundred years. And it would be all my fault!
So, it’s the back porch for me. Wearing my glasses.
Judy Pollard Smith lives in Hamilton.