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“How come you know so much about birds, anyway?”

ILLUSTRATION BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL/SOURCE: ISTOCKPHOTO

“How come we don’t see those pretty yellow birds any more?” Mamma had joined the boy at the window, watching the activity at the bird feeders across the road. “Already gone south for the winter, I suppose.”

‘No Mamma. Goldfinches stay here all year round. They just change colour is all. In winter, goldfinches are brown. Besides it’s only the males that are ever yellow. The female is always less colourful.”

“That’s so she can go unnoticed while she’s raising her babies. She doesn’t want to draw any attention to herself, see, put them at risk. The most important role any mamma has is to protect her family.”

Daddy looked up from his newspaper. The headline on the front page said the murderer was still at large. But the police detective who had come to see them had told him he was pretty sure the person who had killed their neighbour was long gone by now, and there was no threat to their family any more. Mamma had smiled and said she was pleased to hear it.

“How come you know so much about birds, anyway?” asked Daddy.

“I read about them in books,” he said.

“Books?” Daddy turned a wide-eyed look on Mamma. “I swear we’re losing this boy to the Devil, Mamma. What’s wrong with the internet? Wouldn’t catch me reading books when I was your age. I spent all my time online, visiting other worlds, meeting creatures from other galaxies. And trying to kill them.”

At the mention of killing, Daddy fell silent and the three of them looked across the street. The little detached house looked even sadder than usual with the steel-grey sky hanging low over it and the remnants of the yellow police tape flapping in the winter wind. But the birds at the feeders didn’t seem to mind. The boy wondered if they were the same ones that had been there the day the detective came to talk to him. He remembered watching them over the man’s shoulder, on the feeders of the now empty house, what he had called the crime scene. “Now what you’re saying might be important, son, so we’re going to go over it again. The feeders were empty when you got up, but filled by 8 a.m?”

“Yes, sir, same as every morning. The one near the cedar hedges, and the one the other side of the house, by the driveway. Filled by 8 a.m. Same as every morning,’” he repeated.

“Did you see her take them in or put them out?”

“No, but I saw her filling them in the kitchen. Well kinda. We can see a shadow moving about through the net curtains.”

“Not that he watches,” Mamma had explained. “He only looks at the feeders.”

The policeman had an honest face and bright eyes like a blue jay’s. It was the kind of face that told you he believed what you were saying. “See, that’s what we call establishing time of death, TOD. Now that we know that woman was still alive at 8 a.m. that allows us to eliminate a whole lot of people. Puts them in the clear.” He had leaned forward and winked at the boy. “Let’s focus on them that aren’t. Now since your Mamma and Daddy had already gone into town by then, along with most of the rest of the folks around here, that makes you one of the few witnesses that day. Did you see anything unusual? Somebody sneaking around, maybe, or a car curb-crawling?”

“Oh yeah, a lot of those. It was the day of the birdfeeder tour.” Once every winter, the local birdwatchers drove around a circuit of birdfeeders and listed the species they saw. He had watched them that day, checking the feeders with their binoculars as their cars crept slowly past the house, their tires crunching on the hard-packed snow.

“A birdfeeder tour?” The policeman looked kind of angry, but the boy didn’t know why. “I was thinking of something maybe more apropos.”

The boy shrugged. Maybe apropos meant to do with murder, not birds.

“Did these people stop at the house?”

“No, they just drove by, looking at the feeders. At the cedar hedge one, mostly. I suppose they were looking for chickadees.”

“But nothing out of the ordinary happened? Nothing unusual?”

The fact that the group’s list, posted online later, noted an absence of chickadees at the address for the first time in the birdfeeder tour’s history was certainly unusual. But since it was to do with birds, it probably wasn’t apropos, so he didn’t mention it.

“Got sharp eyes, that boy,” the detective had told Mamma on the way out. ‘”Quick mind, too. Oughta think about joining the police when he grows up.”

Mamma had looked pleased but Daddy hadn’t been so impressed when she told him after he came home from work that night. “Police? Why’d you want to go into a dead-end career like that? A musician, that’s what you should be. Sleep in late, spend your nights in blue-smoke bars laying down tunes with other cool cats. Now that’s a life worth living.”

“How come you’re an accountant then?” the boy had asked him.

“Misspent youth, that’s how. Wasted all my time studying when I should have been out drinking and carousing with my friends. Now look at me.”

“Earning more in a month than most musicians make in a year,” Mamma had said quietly. “Oh, the shame of it.”

There was another strange thing that had happened the day the lady died. It wasn’t apropos, either, so he hadn’t mentioned it to the detective, though he wondered afterward if perhaps he should have. When he had approached the house later that day, with the usual pocketful of sunflower seeds, the chickadees had come out of the cedar hedge to perch on his hand, just like they always did. It was strange too, but in a different way, to think that the lady was already lying dead inside the house by that time, and he didn’t know.


“Best get your coat on if you want a ride to school,” Daddy said, as he did every morning.

“I think I’ll walk today. It’s a nice day and I can watch the feeders for a while first.”

“Walk? What wrong with you? When I was your age, I’d take a ride every chance I got. Even if it was sunny. And I only lived two blocks from the school.”

Mamma rolled her eyes and looked at the boy. “Not true. We used to walk to school together every day. Your Daddy even carried my books.”

The boy looked at Daddy for confirmation. “Yeah, well, folks did things differently back then. We didn’t know any better. Trust me, you’ll love cars when you get older. You’ll be able to get out of your own little neighbourhood and see the real world out there. Yes sir, driving those open roads, windows down, music on the radio; a man feels like he can breathe.”

“Maybe you and Mamma could go out driving together, now I’m big enough to take care of myself,” he said. “I bet you miss going out, don’t you, Mamma? Seems like you spend so much time here in the house on your own.”

“I go into town every now and then, like I did on the day that poor lady died. Do some shopping, have a little time to myself. But this is my place now.” She smiled at him. “It’s where I’m supposed to be. Like a mamma bird in her nest, just watching out for her family. Be good for your Daddy and you to spend some time together, though. A boy needs his father around when he gets to be your age. Somebody to tell him lies, fill his head with nonsense, show him how the world really is.”

“Sure,” said Daddy. “If I can find the time.”

‘”You always found time to help others.” Like the woman across the street, Mamma meant. Daddy helped her out a lot. “Course, you won’t need to be doing that any more.”

“No, I don’t suppose I will,” agreed Daddy.

The woman was a flaunter. The boy didn’t know what flaunting was, but that’s what got her killed. Folks said it was the creepy young guy down the street that did it. He had left town that day, but before that, he was always watching her. But then again, they said, it was not surprising, the way she flaunted herself about all over the place. Daddy said a man’d need to be pretty near dead not to notice a woman like that. Mamma agreed. “I always said if you attract the wrong sort of attention, you’re going find yourself in trouble.”

Still, it seemed to him that flaunting shouldn’t be a reason to kill somebody. Surely a woman should be allowed to flaunt as much as she wanted to without having to worry about whether she was going to end up dead for it. Daddy certainly didn’t seem to be bothered by the woman’s flaunting. Up until the day she’d died, he would often drop by to do odd jobs for her.”Just being neighbourly,” he told Mamma. “Woman’s got no man of her own to help her out. Only seems right.”

Mamma assured Daddy she was pretty sure a woman like that could get all the men she wanted. But when the detective came, Mamma told him it might be best not to mention Daddy having been there at all. On account of the flaunting, he assumed, though he didn’t ask. He was sure that would have been okay with Daddy, though. After all, Daddy sometimes stopped by the woman’s house without even mentioning it to Mamma.

That evening, a fine snow had started to fall, setting sparkles of light down on the sidewalk like glitter. The boy wondered if the birds would be able to find food the next day. Maybe he should make sure there was some waiting for them. He went to the door and put on his boots. “I’m just going to fill the feeders,” he told them.

Mamma called that he should be careful, but he didn’t know what about, now that the neighbourhood was safe again.

“How come you want to go outside all the time?” Daddy asked. “It’s unnatural.”

“I think maybe there’s a girl over that way he’s interested in,” said Mamma, without looking up from her knitting. “I saw him talking to her the other day.”

“Face to face? What’s wrong with chatting to her online? You don’t know how lucky you are, an opportunity like that. When I was your age, the only girls we got to talk to were the ones from our own neighbourhood. Now, you can meet girls from Australia, Europe, all kinds of places. You can even be involved with more than one girl at a time.”

“I’d have thought one girl was enough for any boy,” said Mamma “That’s how it is with birds, isn’t it?”

The boy nodded. “Some even stay with the same partner their whole life.”

“Yeah, well,” said Daddy, winking at Mamma, “that term, bird brain, it isn’t mean to be a compliment.”

He went out, still a little flushed to think Mamma had seen him talking to the girl. She was just a neighbour, somebody who, like him, enjoyed watching the birds at the feeders. She had noticed something important that day, though, something that had solved the mystery for him. He wondered if he should tell the detective. He still had his card somewhere. But no. It wasn’t apropos. It was just about birds. Still, Nyjer seed and sunflower seeds looked pretty different. It would have been hard for the woman to get them mixed up, especially after she’d been doing it for so long. But the girl said for sure when she’d looked closely at the feeders that day, the Nyjer seed was in the one by the cedars and the sunflowers were in the one by the driveway. It wouldn’t have made much difference to the goldfinches on the driveway side. They liked them both about the same. But the chickadees in the cedars, they’d have been pretty upset about the mix-up. They’d have been chickadee-dee-dee-ing about all over the place, he would have guessed, to find they had no sunflower seeds in their feeder.

After he filled the feeders, he stood there for a moment, listening to the silence. He loved nights like this, when the air was cold and the snow was falling softly over the neighbourhood. Everything was so peaceful, and clear. He looked back at his house across the street, the yellow light in the window glowing against the darkness all around it. And he realized what he had probably known since he had talked to the girl. The lady hadn’t filled those feeders that morning. But whoever did had to be somebody who knew the lady’s routine, who knew that she put out those same two feeders, filled with black seeds, at the same time every day. And it had to be somebody, too, who knew he’d be watching, so he could say he’d seen them filled that day, and when, putting the TOD when everybody else had an alibi. But he realized one more thing now, standing in the crisp, cold air of this snowy night. It had to have been somebody who didn’t know about birds, who didn’t know that chickadees wouldn’t eat Nyjer seeds. Somebody who didn’t know that, in winter, goldfinches are brown.

Steve Burrows is the author of the award-winning Birder Murder Mysteries series. He lives in Oshawa, Ont., with his wife and muse, Resa.


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