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Commentary: Not For the Birds

By Amy VanDerwater

Buffalo, NY – They were just birds to me. I did not watch them. I did not feed them. I did not house them. I was not interested. In fact, I thought that birdwatchers were strange. Plus, they had too much stuff. Field guides, binoculars, little wooden whistles, fancy squirrel-proof feeders - all this gear just to watch a few birds fly around. "Why the fuss?" I wondered, "There are books to read, conversations to have, restaurants to visit." Sometimes I wanted to yell, "They're just birds!" In those days, I had no feathered friends.

1992. Enter Mark, my new bearded boyfriend. He loved birds. He didn't see one generic group of flying poopers. Mark knew their names: bluebirds, swallows, juncos, kingfishers. He knew their stripes and their songs. On winter days, we would pause to look at birds as I grew icicles on my ears. Mark had me remember specific colorings and tail shapes so that he could "check with the field guide later." He interrupted our conversations to listen to bird conversations. I thought he should be listening to me.

When I saw expensive bags of birdseed, Mark saw tiny thistles. "They'll bring goldfinches to the breakfast window," he explained, heaping the bags into our cart. When I saw hair on the barbershop floor, he saw nest materials and gathered them up to place on shrubs and tree branches. When I complained about bird poop on our picnic table, he examined it and told me what kinds of seed the birds had eaten. Early in our marriage, we watched a red-tailed hawk pick off, kill, and devour a sparrow from our back spruce. I was sure that Mark would be horrified, for even I was sad for the sparrow. Nope. Forever the science teacher, forever fascinated. "Isn't it neat to see the food chain in our own backyard?" Birds could do no wrong. On long car trips, Mark made a game of counting red-tailed hawks. This one-person game, "Hawks vs. Woodchucks," required him to count every hawk and woodchuck on the side of the Thruway as he drove. When we'd reach my parents' home near Binghamton, Mark would proudly report the score, "Hawks 7, Woodchucks 5." I thought he was nuts.

And so I am surprised to catch myself watching birds now, to find that I, too, am noticing their stripes and their songs. Ten years ago I recognized flamingos and penguins, but I didn't know any Western New York birds. I had never heard of a nuthatch, and didn't know that they climb down tree trunks headfirst. Now that I do know, I can't help but smile as I watch nuthatches on our cherry tree.

Many years ago, Mark learned that the chickadees at Tifft Nature Preserve will eat from your hand. He took me there for a hike, and I still remember waiting, nervously holding out my palm full of sunflower seeds. Finally, finally, a chickadee landed on my hand. His feet tickled my fingers, and I found that I didn't want him to fly away. Now when I'm around chickadees, I sometimes call out, "Dee dee dee," just as they do, hoping one will land on me again.

I'm not strange yet. I don't count hawks as I drive, save my hair clippings, or listen to birdcall CDs. But last Saturday morning I cuddled with my children and watched, mesmerized, as a female red-bellied woodpecker pecked suet outside the bedroom window. Henry, our two-year-old son, plans to invite that woodpecker to his birthday party. And I'm surprised to say that I'm hoping she'll come.

Listener-Commentator Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a writing teacher who lives in Holland.