Game of Birds

A flash of cerulean trailed by flutters of crimson, and the chase becomes aerial art. A male cardinal defends his territory against two blue jays beaking a battle duet of “ki-ki-ki.” Like knights of the sky, royals of the air, the males duke it out bird-style with wings bearing their war banners as their dim damsels hide in the castle keeps of their nests without bright colors to give them away.

The person indifferent to birds is sightless to life rollicking around us in the epic proportions of Winterfell. Whether you realize it or not, birds signal our seasons as they march north or south following ancient sky-trails of migration led by the tilting of the sun. Following an inner Stonehenge, they know when to go, feed and breed. How long have we acknowledged red-breasted robins as the heralds of spring?

Robins are like squires. They hop and scurry in plain sight, letting us know that the full train of regal migrants will return when the worms of the earth are ready to harvest. If they served knights as medieval squires once did, then I imagine that the robins are learning chivalry from the birds of the Small Council. Seated there, I see the crowned bald-eagle discussing the realm with raptors of both day and night, accompanied by their colorful knights of the cardinal and blue jay orders.

My fantasy doesn’t stop there. The wooded castle hall enclosing the avian Small Council is alive with the songstresses and story-tellers. I can hear the catbirds singing among the poetry of the trilling loon, and a trio of pileated woodpeckers drums a beat for the raving tree swallows. The ravens–great black robes, maesters of the air—arrive, chanting “caw-caw-caw” as one of their brothers circles the gathering of birds with a light in his mouth to signal songs of deliverance. Just then, the gulls burst in, glittering in white satin, claiming the ships have arrived on the long lake.

My imaginings may course with noble feathered action as I play the game of birds, but I am not alone in succumbing to the allure of them. According to journalistic accounts, bird watching exceeds hunting and fishing in popularity, and while I could not secure accurate data, I suspect it as popular as reading George R. R. Martin. Somehow, observing the ebb and flow of the birds around me connects me to something more than mythical—it connects me to the pulse of life.

Yet, I am no graduate of Audubon—I fail to accurately discern markings, tail feathers and the flit of wing that identifies one bird from another. Recently I have discovered northern flickers with their zig-zag striations, red tops and white bottoms, adding to my short-list of bird witnessing. Allison, my own flesh-and-blood bird guru, points them out to me. I see the flickers clearly when she does, yet when I point them out in return she says, “Mom, that’s a robin.”

For three weeks in a row, I awoke every morning to zealous hammering that echoed across the town of Washburn. It was the breakfast call of the pileated woodpecker. Large and black as a crow with white stripes and a fire-red crested crown, this bird should be easy to spot. Should be. Scanning the white pines and utility poles on my morning walk, I could not spot the bird capable of digging holes so deep into a tree as to cut it in half.

Then, one morning around 5 a.m. when the June sky spilled early morning light like misty pink powder, I clearly saw a pileated woodpecker crawling up a wooden power pole as confident as a lineman. I stood in awe as he pounded for insects, thrilled to connect the sound with its originator. But it vanished without notice like a pyromancer’s apprentice. The next morning I had slept in until 6 a.m. yet there at the same pole was the same pecker. He seemed to like that I was watching him (see how easily I grow fanciful). He titled his head to the left then the right like he was doing bird yoga. He hopped up the pole, pounded and then flew off. This time I witnessed the undulating flight that seemed pterodactyl. It was not a red-breasted squire.

The game of birds is most certainly played outdoors, and often involves binoculars and books. Yet, there is more to bird watching than gaining natural wisdom. If I have failed to develop a keenness for spotting songbird silhouettes, I have at least developed an allegorical connection to birds. Just as Isaiah 40:31 reminds us that our hope in the Lord will renew our strength—we will soar on wings like eagles—I actually feel a deep stirring every time I see an eagle perched in a snag or surfing the air currents. Ducks quack out, “follow me” as they fly overhead, their wings breaking silence like the tinkling of crystal shards. Birds proclaim the work of the Creator’s hands; how can we hear them and not feel our own souls? Bird watching is like waiting expectantly for God to show up.

And I am not crazy as the call of a loon sounds in my sentiment for bird mysticism. Beyond feathered allusions in the Bible, birds are universally regarded spiritually. Native American lore has long favored avian creatures as story-tellers, brothers and even creators.  Mythology relates birds to the divine: the Egyptians believed that the soul could fly from the body as a bird; Jewish tradition recognized doves as soul guides. Harbingers of life and death, the owl hoots for the soon to be deceased and storks drop baby bundles from the sky. Even in folklore we attribute wisdom to birds: the early bird gets the worm.

One of my favorite regional artists, Jan Wise, paints captivating scenes of ravens as mystics in black who spiritually connect us to the Lake Superior region. “Drafting in the Waterfalls and Trees” is a painting that looks realistic, yet drifting from the north-woods into a Martin-like realm where we expect the birds to deliver the messages of maesters. Another painting of Wise’s, “Three Ravens Exploring,” is more animated with three ravens in a boat, oaring and singing like voyageurs to the arctic. Birds tell stories, and perhaps we watch because we think we will capture a synecdoche that explains the universe.

Mostly I see crows. I’m sure I’ve seen a raven, but those undeveloped powers of bird distinctions lead me to think every big black bird I see is a crow. The crows are fun to watch as they hop along the mowed grass outside my window. One day I watched as one hopped after a flitting black butterfly in some lilting shadow dance of nature. I wondered if the bird wanted to eat the delicate insect, but he never did. On another day, so many crows gathered down at the big lake just two blocks down the hill that their cacophony of caws sounded like the name their group was given—a murder. It made me wonder what was going on in heaven.

No matter where we step in this wide-world, we are surrounded by the game of birds. From my office window in a suburban setting, I used to watch a birch tree that housed scene after scene of avian life—mostly chickadees and purple finches, but occasionally a blue bird passing through. I grew up watching hawks, and I am sure I will die spotting something winged. Just the other day, sitting at an outdoor concert at Stage North, my mind began to drift into the fantastical after someone told me her story of watching two blue jays fight a cardinal over territory. Just as my mind imagined the birds as mythical knights battling in their banner colors, I saw a songbird sitting in the tree behind the musician. Expecting something grand, I turned to my bird watching companions and pointed to the  in the branches.

In unison they said, “It’s a robin.”



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