In the summer of 1992, a few months before we married, my now ex-husband and I wandered into a pet shop in a mall and looked at some birds. About a month later, we returned to the same store with a purpose and brought home two small exotic finches of a sort called White-Headed Nuns. We named them Hildegard and Alexander and watched them with fascination. Only about four inches long, with cream-colored heads, reddish-brown bodies, strong conical blue-grey beaks, and large blue-grey feet distinguished by a long, hook-shaped nail on the rear toe, they were bursting with personality. Hildegard was domineering, suspicious, and aloof except when she chose not to be. (She would occasionally eat from my hand.) Alexander was calm, sedentary, tolerant, and a lover of music who added his own little song to any music he liked. (Which included flutes, recorders, Brahms, and the singing of Emma Kirkby.)
Two years later, we were given a pair of zebra finches. Two years after that, we mourned the loss of Alexander, but by then we had another pair of finches, Indian Silverbills we called Peter and Harriet Wimsey, and another White-Headed Nun we called Cadfael. More finches, two canaries, and several budgies followed, and Rembrandt the cockatiel arrived in our lives in July 2000, and after him two other cockatiels, our dear hen Mango, now deceased, and Sandro, another male, who lives with my ex.
Since 1992 I have never been without the company of birds. I don’t think I could tolerate living without them. And living with birds in the home very soon made me pay attention to birds outside. I discovered that even the city holds more than sparrows and pigeons, and the ducks and gulls who frequent our harbor area. I learned to recognize starlings, mourning doves, goldfinches, cardinals, robins, and the juncos who fly down from further north and winter here. Catbirds arrive in summer. Canada geese and coots share the harbor’s waters with mallards and gulls; all of them are prone to taking naps on the paddleboats, the historic sailing ship, and the various private boats docked there.
I’ve awakened to the calls of a mockingbird that could imitate the most annoying of car alarms, and to the soft, repetitive cooing of the mourning dove.
Even when I’m travelling outside my home turf, I feel that birds recognize me. I didn’t get the nickname “Mommybird” just from taking care of my own little flock; wherever I go, birds approach me, as if they know that I’m part of their flock. My ex and I agreed that birds have an “Internest”; when you see them sitting on wires, they’re sending signals around the globe through their feet. Wherever I go, a mourning dove is apt to show up and give me the beaky eyeball; I’m sure they go off and report to Rembrandt somehow.
As far as I can tell, I’ve always believed that birds and animals, trees and plants have feelings and deserve respect. I apologize if I walk past a plant and bend its leaves or branches. I step around worms and ants so far as I can. I accept spiders as friends. (I have E.B. White to thank for that.) I want to have plants and rocks about me in my home just as I want to have the companionship of birds. I struggled to keep a plant alive at work until I had good luck with a bamboo that’s now in its third container and towering over my desk.
Do I see land spirits? Er, maybe–out of the corner of my eye. I saw skittering, darting things that I knew weren’t mice from the corners of my eye in my apartment. I did some divination, and then I stopped seeing them when I started offering them milk and speaking to them politely. My practice, that is to say, my ideal, is a daily offering of a small dish of milk for the spirits, plain purified water to the dead, and incense and lights to the gods. I fail to carry out my ideals some days, some weeks, but I never give it up.
Keeping birds has made me see myself as part of the flock. My pet birds typically eat when I do, sleep when I do, am active when I am active. Alexander used to like music; Rembrandt will sit on my shoulder and watch Elementary with me. I think we are just so a part of an ecology of spirits that includes the land, its mortal beings, our ancestors, our gods and powers. The problem is we’ve forgotten that and insist on ignoring our neighbors.