Covenanting with birds

I’m afraid of birds. (Someday I’ll share the backstory.) Paradoxically, though, they also mesmerize me. Phobias are like that. Fear sparks fascination.

Coming to the end of our Florida stay, I was granted a sight I’d been coveting – a bald-headed eagle. Its colossal size took my breath away. After it sat quietly regal on a high branch for a few moments, it soared away, white tail echoing the dazzling white head. I didn’t have my camera, but I doubt I’ll ever forget it.

It was similarly thrilling to encounter a pair of sandhill cranes on the golf course. These stately birds stand four feet tall and have a distinctive rattling call that can be heard a long way off. My sister and I were able to get quite close. The cranes backed away haughtily, the male vocalizing his displeasure. Teresa snapped dozens of photos, both of us transported by our luck.

A great blue heron stalks the north corner of our park, calmly meandering through the yards. It trains a steely eye on me as I bike by, but doesn’t flinch. That’s true of the wood stork, too. Possessed of a penetrating stare, it stands so still I mistook it for a lawn ornament the first time I biked past. Occasionally it roosts on a car roof. Sometimes it rests on its “knees,” a strange sight. Its visage is strikingly ugly, but it has a handsome wingspan, edged in black.

One day while I was biking a great white egret flew right at me! I gasped, but it swerved up effortlessly, and then landed, unruffled, in the garden beside me. Its yellow eye, ringed with vibrant green, peered back at me nonchalantly as if to say, “What’s your problem?”

Hawks are common. I’ve learned to recognize their flight and high-pitched shrieks. It still shocks me, though, to spot a hawk perched immobile on the corner of a neighbour’s house! Or busy with something in the grass. Disturbing.

Ibises are numerous, too. They flock together, grunting like pigs as they gobble up insects in the lawns. Despite their numbers, they are relatively shy, almost as nervous as I am. They hunch sociably on the hydro wires, leaning back to balance their long curved beaks.

Front row seats

Across the street, our neighbour Bob puts out seed for the black-hooded parakeets. Picture parrots rather than budgies. Dozens swoop down simultaneously, clashing over the bird feeder. Their brilliant appearance – black faces and lime green plumage – and their incessant screeching create quite a stir. Pedestrians stop. Cars slow down. And some individuals check the skies before venturing out on the bike. (Grin).

Crows mass randomly. They’re the worst, aggressive and menacing. They line up on the wires where the parakeets like to hang out. Then we have a front row seat for bird wars. The crows zoom in. The parakeets give way, screaming insults, sidling back to their spots as soon as the intruders look the other way. A crow will then arbitrarily harass a single parakeet, chasing it relentlessly. In the midst of all this avian sound and fury, I stay safely ensconced under the carport.

Not long ago, biking to the recycling centre to drop off some pop cans, I was suddenly and stealthily surrounded by hundreds of crows. OK, 50, at least! Swirling and cawing. On the lawns, on nearby roofs, on the wires above. Quaking, I retreated, walking my bike around the pond, two men watching from a distance, no doubt befuddled by my choice of path.

So why all this ornithology? Last night my devotions included this passage from Genesis 9: “Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: ‘I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you – the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you – every living creature on earth.’” I was struck by the startling equation implied in this verse. God’s covenant was struck with humanity and every living creature. Beginning with birds! My partners in a cosmic contract: the black anhinga with its vivid white spider web on its wings, Hallowe’en cousin of the cormorant, the splendid osprey spraying fish guts everywhere, the mellifluous mockingbird, Florida’s state bird. We’re in this together. All recipients of God’s beneficence.

This inspires a weightier, more theological, birdwatching. Someday I will live in peace with birds. And geckoes. Mice. Snakes. (The list goes on. . . .)


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