Betty Duffy

Sunday, May 8, 2011

So Sayeth the Birds

My dad kept homing pigeons when we were kids. On Saturdays, he entered his best birds in races with the local pigeon club. The president of the pigeon club, as I now see things, must have been a Renaissance man. His children were named Dante and Leah. But when I was younger, everything related to my Dad's pigeon operation was a sea of lameness.

"Good morning pigeons!" my dad would sing in a halting tenor beginning around 6:30 a.m. His intention, obviously, was to rouse us from our beds for school, though our waking was always presented as a side-effect of his pigeon love song, which made the song all the more irritating. It seemed as though we might have been able to continue sleeping if it weren't for his bird enthusiasms, so the pigeons were a source of resentment.

When my dad entered birds into a race, he asked me to fill in for him if he had to step out for one of my brothers' ball games. Saturdays would often find me sitting on the back porch waiting for the birds to come in. My friends would call to see if I could come out on my bike and tool around the neighborhood, and I would have to decline because of the possibility that a pigeon might arrive the moment I left my station.

When a bird came in, I had to go out to the coop, scoop up the bird, which I wasn't fond of doing, and remove the band from its leg. The band went into a small capsule, which we deposited into a clock that stamped the time of the bird's arrival on a paper receipt. The pigeon club met to compare times for their earliest birds, and the winner would receive a small purse.

In hindsight I can see how sitting on the porch waiting for birds to fly home was a dreamy way for a sullen pre-teen to spend the weekends. My parents were always trying to instill in me a greater appreciation for nature. But I liked my trails well-paved in those days.

I could appreciate birds in theory. One of the first books I personally owned was "Birds of the World," a beautifully bound and illustrated gift from my grandfather. I never read the text, but the illustrations made bird life look ok. Bird life on paper, that is, enjoyed from the comfort of my air-conditioned, bug-free home.

As an adult, I've had to make peace with dirt, heat, ticks, and worms, as well as the trails, and suddenly, bird theories once again pique my interest.

For mother's day, my mom and I heard the president of the Indiana Audubon Society give a presentation on Indiana birds. Each of the birds presented had some lovely truth to offer about the nature of things.

The male red winged black-bird returns to the Midwest in February, a first sign that Spring is on its way. He builds several nests in anticipation of his bride's subsequent return several weeks later, and when she finally does arrive, she chooses the best of his offerings in which to lay her eggs, but not before she completely remakes the nest to her specifications.

And the male cardinal, the Indiana State bird, proves to his potential mate that he's worthy of her affections by feeding her, beak to beak.

Of course there are black sheep in the bird world, both male and female.

Hummingbirds are gorgeous to watch, a pleasure to have in the garden, but the male, while being fiercely territorial, tends to fly off after mating. Leave it to the ruby-throated gilded bloke to make his departures in the wake of love.

And the brown-headed cowbird--what a piece of work. The female lays her eggs in a foster mother's nest, then departs to pastures new, certain that, say, a warbler female will sit on her eggs and feed her chicks once they hatch, even to the detriment of the warbler's own chicks. A smart girl, that cowbird, but it is a species that bird authorities very frankly label a parasite.

People love to site nature as the authority for all kinds of behaviors. Mostly, we hear the animal kingdom referenced to condone the worst in mankind. What can you do about the cowbird? She's worrisome, and yet God apparently designed her without much of a maternal instinct.

What's amazing to me is that the cowbird instinctively knows which foster mother will be unable to reject her foreign eggs. God created other birds instinctively unable to turn down a hungry babe, no matter whose it it. Life sorts itself out.

There are so many different types of mothers, avian and human. It's the homing pigeon with which I most identify these days: domestic, dependent, non-migratory, year after year, returning from my short departures to the same places and people I love. Sort of ironic how lowly I once regarded that particular bird.


Kimberlee said...

As we are a bunch of bird lovers, I found this post delightful. We enjoyed reading about your childhood memories as we have a pet ex-homing pigeon - he got lost and didn't want to go home, so we adopted him. Birds are a fascinating hobby, indeed. And Happy Mother's Day!

wifemotherexpletive said...

I loved this post as well. . . ah, birds, mothers, all wrapped up in questions and answers.. fabulous gift you have...

Kimberlie said...

I love this post too. As an adoptive mom, I can identify with that foster mother bird who is instinctively unable to turn down a hungry (motherless) babe. I can also identify with that female red winged black bird who will pick out the best nest and then immediately set about redesigning it to her own specifications. I feel a bit kindred to that female bird.

Erin said...

Well I learn something new every day. What a beautiful way to portray human life -- compared to birds. I'm going to study some birds now to figure out who I am. ;)

BettyDuffy said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this post. Not my usual oeuvre, but it's fun to branch out sometimes.