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For the Birds

Sometimes, during the dog days of summer, here in Georgia, I think back to my youth and the arctic cold temperatures of winter in Wisconsin. Those days when you'd wake up to a room brightened by the clean, white light of the snow outdoors, excited about what adventure lay ahead with a toboggan or pair of skis. And after a few hours of excitement in the snow, the toes and fingers would start to go numb, your cheeks would feel as though a cold piece of sandpaper was scratching across them with every gust of wind...we knew it was time to go inside.

Once inside, in dry clothes, I'd sit at the bay window in our kitchen, sipping on a mug of sweet, hot chocolate while watching the birds congregate at our outdoor feeder.

It was satisfying. Not just the hot chocolate, but watching the birds eat the food we had prepared for them - a wire cage filled with suet and a couple hanging feeders filled with a seed blend. There was a Roger Tory Peterson guide and a pair of binoculars sitting on the nearby table and my dad and I would challenge each other as to the names of the different species. "Look, a Red-Bellied Woodpecker!" my dad would say as he pointed out to a barely discernible spot, climbing high up on a leafless oak.

We'd always see the regulars...the Downy Woodpecker, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Chickadees and Slate-Colored Juncoes, but occasionally, there would be a bird we hadn't seen before. And believe it or not, that was really exciting. The challenge was on to identify this bird as I flipped through the guide, rapidly turning through the pages and glancing to the newcomer bouncing on top of the crusty snow.

Forty years later, in many respects, I haven't lost that affection for watching the birds. Now on the weekends, I wake up to an orange lit room, knowing of the impending heat and projects I need to work on outside. No, I would not be playing in snow, I'd be sweating in sun; finishing before noon and spending the afternoon indoors in the cool and comfortable air conditioning with a glass of ice water instead of hot chocolate. There is no bird feeder outside our kitchen window, but there is a bird bath and I relish the opportunity to watch the birds enjoy the water; rehydrating and cooling off on a sweltering summer afternoon.

A few days ago, I noticed a male Cardinal sitting on one of our wooden porch chairs. As I made lunch I could see his bright red contrasting against the pale, almost gray wood of the chair. He seemed to sit there forever and his crest, which was normally always standing at attention, was flattened against his head. The crest on a Cardinal is like a barometer on the bird's attitude and health. Upright and erect means alert and attentive, flattened and close to the head can mean there is something wrong. I wondered, is he was overheated, did he eat a dead insect sprayed with poison? After a few minutes, I noticed his head moving around slowly. He was looking up at the trees and his surroundings. Then, after about 20 minutes he was gone. My guess, and this is only a guess, is that he was simply relaxing on a hot afternoon day. Something creatures in the wild have to do in order to survive the never-ending heat in a world absent of mechanical cooling.

There are those days when birds simply make you smile. Like when a male Cardinal brings a seed to his mate and she takes it from him. It's like watching a young man bring a corsage to his date or an older couple share a scoop of ice cream.

We've all seen these similarities happen and in our lives we call it love.

This past spring as I watched a pair of Eastern Bluebirds fly back and forth to their new nest box, each flight carrying a stick or clump of bedding for their new home, I thought about a newly married couple carrying box after box from the car into their new nest. Setting it up just the way they wanted it and raising a family while there...just like the Bluebirds in my backyard.

Are we really so different? These feathered creatures come in different colors and shapes, yet they are all called birds in my Roger Tory Peterson Guide. Some have long, hooked beaks for reaching into holes, others have short, strong beaks for grinding and crushing seeds. Some have brilliant colors of violets and greens, while others are gray, brown or black. Some sing in high, brilliant notes, at times piercing above the range of my hearing while others make low, hauntingly beautiful calls during the deep of night.

There are times when those joyful calls become frantic and angry. Like when a snake or predator is nearby. It seems like the entire community of birds, once soloists in their own lives, now band together in a jarring symphony of calls which shriek alarm.

Again, I see this in a neighborhood when crime has come into play. The neighbors banding together with a watch program and diligence at keeping the community safe.

I can say this now, way past the halfway mark in my life...I will always enjoy watching the birds. Whether it is from my kitchen window or while sitting along a bluff in the wilds by a flowing river. I see the similarities between them and the good which occurs in us and it is very comforting in a very turbulent time.

And there are those mornings when you awaken before dawn and sit outside to listen, as the birds begin their joyful chorus. The Carolina Wrens, Mourning Doves and Mockingbirds all taking part in a giant exclamation point which grows louder as the sun rises from below the horizon and into the humid sky. There is always hope...always.

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