By Susan Wilson
Guest Columnist
Oak Bluffs, MA, USA

Although I am known best for writing novels about dogs and their unique bond with humans, I have always been a bit of a bird brain. I can blame that entirely on my mother, God rest her soul. We moved from Providence, Rhode Island, to Rockfall, Connecticut, when I was five and one of the first things we discovered in moving "to the country" was the pleasure of backyard bird watching. 

Susan Wilson

As so many developments were in the late fifties, our neighborhood was carved out of former farmland. Our property was abutted by the remnants of the original farm, an unkempt pasture and small vegetable garden, and beyond that, dense, rocky and wet Connecticut woods, two perfect wildlife habitats; in fact, our street was Wildwood Acres Road. At some point early on, my mother put out a platform feeder attached to the kitchen window. And there I began my avian education, standing on a chair or sitting on the counter in order to be able to see the birds that partook of the bounty. 
I very quickly learned how to identify chickadees, tufted titmice, all the seedeaters one might expect on a backyard bird feeder. House sparrows, chipping sparrows. Nothing rare, nothing particularly remarkable. Our resource was the staple of amateur birdwatchers, the Golden Nature Book of Birds. I still have an edition and am still using it to figure out which of the zillion species of sparrow is pecking around. Like my grandsons today, pouring over their encyclopedias of airplanes or farm equipment, I poured over that little book, and, on rare occasion, the mother of all bird books, my grandmother’s Audubon book with the full color plates. Even back then, we knew that was a treasure. 


The result of all that juvenile study is that I got pretty good at picking out birds. Now, in no way am I even close to being a "birder," one of those dedicated naturalists, amateur and otherwise, who have all the right equipment and volunteer for the annual Christmas bird count; who are able to identify a rare species by their silhouette or flight pattern. As close to that as I’ve come is being a part of the Cornell Feederwatch program which gave me a glorious excuse to be staring out the window this winter when I should have been working. 

What I am is a devoted backyard bird watcher. And, believe me, I have been treated to some wonderful sights. If you spend enough time sitting on your deck, there are delights to be had. Take, for instance, what’s going on in my backyard even as I write this (and what has given me the inspiration for this essay). 
My husband has a buoy hanging from the corner of his shed cum workshop cum motorcycle garage. It blows in the wind, swinging from side to side as if it’s still in the water marking a mooring or lobster pot. (Full disclosure, I have no idea where it came from. We do not disturb lobster pots. Probably found in the landfill.) This buoy is in two parts, a bulbous top in dark blue and a lozenge-shaped yellow bottom, with a pole inside like an axis. A few weeks ago, we noticed a perfectly round hole at the intersection of top and bottom. It seems as though a pair of chickadees have been pecking at the foam. Within a few days, that hole had clearly gone deep and we watched as this little pair built a nest within the body of the buoy. Although there is no way to discern the gender of either bird, to me it was abundantly clear that the Missus of the pair had some very clear notions about arranging the furniture. Mister would fly in, and before he could extricate himself, she would take over the work, almost as if she had to redo everything he’d done. Like me rearranging the dishwasher contents after my mister does the dishes –ladies, you all know what I mean. I don’t think that they ended up taking residence. Maybe the whole swinging in the breeze thing put them off. Maybe they found a nicer neighborhood. 
Birds are such seasonal creatures, and the arrival of the osprey each March, back from their winter in Brazil, is the dependable signal that spring is, despite all evidence to the contrary, on its way. These fishing hawks take up residence in their summer homes, high atop poles set up for their use (to discourage nesting on power lines and telephone poles). Like our summer cottagers, these pairs sort through last year’s detritus, add some new touches to the home and get a new family going – well, maybe not entirely the same. Within a couple of weeks, the air is filled with circling osprey, their piercing hunting call distinct from other hawks. As they score food for the brood, Mom and Dad, in a constant cycle of keeping hungry babies fed, are back and forth from water to the nest, fish dangling from talons. 
In a like way, the arrival of the red wing blackbird in the marshes and the changing color of year-round goldfinch from drab to glorious signal spring. Lest one think that birds are harbingers of spring and summer only, in the late fall it is the migratory arrival of ducks that announces that winter is coming. A good pair of binoculars reveals rafts of black ducks, buffleheads, and eider floating offshore. In recent years, I’ve been taken by the arrival in late fall of masses of fish crows, much smaller versions of the common crow, which flock in enormous groups and disappear by the time the spring arriving osprey appear. 
With all this wild avian observation, I’ve only had a limited, and not very successful, experience of pet birds. Parakeets. My grandmother, of the aforesaid Audubon book, had a beloved parakeet named Sparky. She let Sparky free fly around her apartment and, to the delight of us children, encouraged him to sit on our heads and eat the melon she always had for our breakfast when we stayed with her. Unfortunately, my grandmother was also a bit of a fantasist and believed that all animals in a given household would get along. The other animal was our beagle mix, Chipper. I have no idea what the circumstances were when my sister and I and the dog spent the night with Grandma, but I awoke to some horrifying shrieking only to find out that my beagle had, as beagles will, caught Sparky. It didn’t end well for the bird. 
The second parakeet was Dreamer. Dreamer, I regret to this day, succumbed when we went away and left the house too cold for a tropical bird to survive. My youngest daughter’s first animal trauma. After that we dabbled in raising pigeons, and that didn’t end all that well either. Two of our favorites were victims of Red-tailed hawks. We moved on to horses after that. 

House Finch

I stick to wild birds now, keeping the bird feeder full and the birdbath ice-free in winter. I notice how the towhees in the woods are always loudest at a certain part of the trail. How opportunistic wild fowl can be, like mallards and turkeys lurking around when you’re throwing corn for the barnyard guinea hens. How incredibly messy Canada geese are. There is a language in birds that is comprehensible to humans if you take the time to listen. The tweets describe boundaries and the twitters are a fledgling’s demand that mama keep feeding him even though he is exactly her size and plumage. A noisy group of sparrows reminds me that I haven’t tossed the cracked corn out yet. A chickadee waits within three feet as I refill the bird feeder, his gimlet eye on me, hurrying me along. Crows are amazing vocalists. From the standard caw caw caw to a sound more like castanets clacking together, they are also fierce soldiers in the war against predatory birds. Watching a murder of crows chase off a Cooper’s hawk is a sight to behold. Who needs a caged bird when all birds sing?
Many cultures have superstitions involving birds. I’ve heard it said that the sighting of a cardinal signifies that the recently dead are present. The English think that if you see one magpie you have to clutch your collar until you see another or it’s bad luck. If you walk over a feather it’s good luck. And it has been said that a bird is sometimes a messenger.

After my father died, we were sitting around the dining room table planning his funeral service, picking out hymns, when this weird, loud, bird call got our attention. It was like no other bird call I had ever heard. Raucous, almost like something you imagine hearing in the jungle, not in a suburban development. We looked out the dining room window and spotted an enormous long-billed, long-legged bird standing on the stump of a mimosa tree that my father had loved despite it’s being in the way of the driveway. None of us, my mother included, could identify this bird. It was like something you’d see in a zoo. Out came the venerable Audubon book. It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be. This noisy, odd-looking bird most resembled the possibly extinct, never native to Connecticut, ivory-billed woodpecker. My mother was a nurse; my sister is a family therapist, my husband is bone-deep practical. Yet, we all agreed, this was a visitation; my father. It was a comfortable thought.
Even on my grumpiest days, if I spot the long, white shape of an egret fishing for minnows in a pond or am treated to the sight of a harrier coursing along the verge, my mood is lightened, I have to smile. A couple of years ago, we had snowy owls wintering over. I hadn’t spotted one until one late afternoon as I was driving by the state beach. I came over the bridge, and there it was, a heart-stopping moment for me. I pulled over and jumped out of the car. Because this bird had been sighted before and was known to be in residence at this section of beach, I wasn’t the only one there. Perfect strangers offered me a look through their bird scope. There is nothing like the sight of an uncommon bird to bring about a momentary bond between humans. 



Susan Wilson is a New York Times bestselling author of eleven novels and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine. Her latest novel, The Dog I Loved, was published in November 2019.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.