For the Birds

A year ago, I posted this piece about the place of birds in my life. I wonder if you have threads like this that run through your life.

I stand on a chair to reach my grandmother’s birdcage.  My dress and petticoat flip out in back, as I balance on my palms, my sturdy toddler legs straining toward the parakeet.  The parakeet contemplates my nose poking between the bars.  I want it to sing.  It’s all I want of this place, this apartment which rattles like death when the El rushes by. I think how much I miss my own home.  Unless the bird will sing.

Maybe it’s something that happened to me even before I was born.  I started reaching out for the word music with my baby fists, if only to rush them like a bottle to my mouth:  “Little Miss Muffet”; “See You Later, Alligator”; “A Fairy Went a-Marketing.” I recited and sang them repetitively—until my mother screamed at me to stop.  Even then, I slipped under the bed covers and sang “My bonnie lies over the ocean, my bonnie lies over the sea.”  My breath billowed up the sheet.

Only a fifteen-year-old can make the leap from puppy love to bird lover.  That’s what happened when I became fascinated with a boy with a bird’s name.  My girlfriend and I followed him oh-so-subtly-and-cleverly in the halls, only running into him “by accident.”  On the weekend I couldn’t wait for school to begin anew on Monday, so we went to the mall.  Woolworth’s had a department with birds in birdcages.  An arched cage so much like my grandmother’s parakeet cage held two lovebirds.  I paid $9.99 for the lovers.

When my husband and I got married in an ice storm, we drove from the hotel reception in a burgundy Marquise Brougham with a prayer on the dashboard.  Songbirds flew after us into the dark.  That’s the way I remember it.

I sat in Grandma’s old oak rocker, holding my baby son in my arms, murmuring:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,

Out of the Ninth-month midnight,

Over the sterile sands, and the fields beyond, where the child, leaving his bed, wander’d alone, bare-headed, barefoot

Whitman‘s poem managed something the others hadn’t been able to—it crept into my body, spreading out and occupying my flesh like a snakeskin it merely tolerated.  I still can’t get rid of it.  The poem and I battle inside like the gingham dog and the calico cat, but if it decided to leave, I’d be as empty as that snakeskin, discarded and colorless.  It’s a poem about a he-bird who loves and loses the she-bird.  Or it’s a poem about the curious boy who observes the bird and his troubles.  But really it’s about a rocking like the surging of the sea and the hissing and whispering and all manner of delicious delicacies of words and rhythm.

When my parents put Grandma in the nursing home, she had to leave her parakeet behind.  Not that yellow parakeet she had when I was a preschooler, but the green one she’d had since then.  Dad brought the cage to our house and put it in the family room where the bird could watch TV.  I kept changing the food and water, but the bird refused a single seed and died within a week.

Richard Siken told us wannabe poets never to write poems with birds in them.  “It’s been done to death,” he said.  I think he said that the bird as trope for poet was old after Whitman.  Or maybe he said before Whitman.  I went home and wrote a poem about Andersen’s Nightingale and the Chinese countryside and didn’t use the word bird.  That’s what you call a writing constraint.

We had such a problem with roof rats and teenagers.  The latter we knew would eventually move out.  My husband called in the pest control people for the former.  The man the company sent shuffled and mumbled, so we let him go about his business.  That afternoon my son ran into the house yelling his head off, and since he’s a mild-mannered young man, I scrambled to get to him.  He led me out to the back steps where three baby birds hung on a glue trap like Jesus and the thieves.  We poured a sort of holy kitchen oil to release them.  One had already died and a second stilled the instant it rested in my palm.  The third one regarded me with one black eye, vibrant as a drop of ink.  We hustled it to the veterinarian where the techs hustled it out of our sight.

My daughter writes songs that come out of her fully formed.  I don’t know how anyone can do that, but then she sings them and her voice sounds like warm magma flowing.  She sends me links to private songs on Myspace so I can listen before anyone else.

Over ten years ago cats started showing up at our house, looking for food and, later, shelter.  We only had a couple of dogs left.  The birds had departed long before for their heaven.  Now the cats outnumber the humans, and they think they have an equal vote.  They vote that anything with a fast heart rate can be considered prey.  So no more birds for our family.

This house in Arizona has a tile roof, and the pigeons think it’s a rocky hillside, like their homes before humankind. While pigeons have those pleasing round breasts and iridescent feathers like abalone, they excrete their body weight every day—and always from the eaves above my exterior doors.  I asked my neighbor to stop feeding the birds, but she doesn’t speak to humans.  We put up screens to stop them from roosting in the obvious places.  But a stubborn contingent stay put, and from my fireplace I hear them cooing.  My brown striped cat purrs on the hearth, in rhythm with the pigeon coos.

A young pigeon dances on my patio, with his wings akimbo across his back, like a child stuck in a shirt he’s attempting to put on.  Two adult pigeons watch from the roof.  I put him in a brown bag and drive him to the pigeon lady.  She has big man hands and examines him brusquely, but listens with her eyes closed, like a good doctor.  She says, “I’ve never seen this before.  It’s not a broken wing.  He’s twisted his wings together across his back, like you twist a twisty on a bag.”  She carefully and surely untwists his wings and puts them flat against his sides.  “I’ll keep him for the winter and release him in the spring when he’s healthy.”  I write a poem about the pigeon lady and through it she becomes a religious icon in my religion of one.

In the summer, I bring her another pigeon.  This one acts odd, walking around the yard, but only flying a few feet at a time.  She tries, but can’t save this one.  “He had an illness, and I don’t know what it was.”  She wants my permission to do an autopsy.  That’s the way she learns how to take care of the living pigeons.  When I hang up the phone, I can see through the window that another pigeon resting at the edge of eaves is breathing rhythmically as its body empties and fills and empties and fills in an unbroken pattern.

My grandmother outlived her parakeet in the nursing home for a year.  I told my parents that if she had had the parakeet in her room, she and the parakeet would both have lived longer, but they explained that she died of uremia from renal failure.  “The bird died because it didn’t eat, Luanne,” my mother said.  “Stop trying to connect things that are not related.”


In June, I wrote about the pigeon lady in another post. Birds and trees are two of my writing obsessions. When a motif turns up repeatedly on this blog, I can tell it’s another obsession ;). What are your obsessions . . . um, motifs?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing

42 responses to “For the Birds

  1. My goodness. That was beautiful, Luanne. It may not be a poem about a bird (and I don’t think they’re overdone, either) but it is equally lovely a tribute.

    I am bird obsessed, too. We have 2 parakeets whose presence I adore, especially at this time of year, when our part of the world is so dark and cold. All around our house are representations of birds, including a print of 2 chickadees in winter, small sculptures and wood carvings, whistles from China in the shape of birds…you get the idea.

    I particularly like the layout of this piece with the photo at the beginning of each paragraph. It kind of reminds me of a medieval manuscript. Something a hibernating monk might have scribed in the Outer Hebrides.

    • Luanne

      MM, thank you for your sweet words. So cool that it reminds you of “something a hibernating monk might have scribed in the Outer Hebridges.” I need to tweet that comment ;)! I LOVE that you’re “bird obsessed”! Yes, I love birds all around me. The other day I looked up and a hummingbird was playing with the tippy top empty branch of a tree. I’d never seen that before.

  2. Lovely, Luanne. This brought back so many memories of my childhood. I too sang, My bonnie lies over the ocean…loved it! Trips to Woolworth’s with my mom and grandmother, always a treat.

    • Luanne

      Jill, I love hearing that something I wrote brings back memories for someone else. That just seems exciting to me! How I used to love to walk into Woolworth’s holding my Grandma’s hand! She would always get a coffee and a piece of pie to keep me company while I ate whatever nonsense I ordered!

      • Oh yes, my grandmother always got a piece of pie. I loved their chocolate pudding, served in the fancy glass dessert cups. By the way, I read your reply to another comment and I’m so jealous you saw a hummingbird recently. I love birds too, but hummingbirds are my favorite. We have to wait until May for our friends to return.

  3. What a great question! I love birds, but never write about them much. I always watch the birds wherever I live or travel. I don’t see much in the way of motifs in my online writing, but in my fiction, nature sometimes takes the place of characters. I can’t visualize a scene unless I know the weather, the landscape, the kinds of flowers and birds and the growing season. Growing up, being outside was a refuge, so I’m sure that has played a role.

    • Luanne

      Michelle, sometimes you have a little motif of self-deprecation in your online writing ;). And also maybe it’s not a motif, but a pattern, that you are always very thoughtful and self-aware and analytical when you write. The idea of nature taking the place of characters is fabulous. I need to be more careful about doing just what you say here: knowing “the weather, the landscape, the kinds of flowers and birds and the growing season” before visualizing a scene. I usually start with dialogue, but I can see that imagining/creating the environment first would create rich language. Thanks, Michelle

  4. This was really lovely. I remembered that my daughter would sing “My Bonnie” to herself only it came out, “My body lies over the ocean…” Then I remembered the pigeons in Chicago. Then, the old woman in Paris, behind Notre Dame, feeding the pigeons, a soul sister to your pigeon lady.

    • Luanne

      JM, how will I ever think of my old nursery song again in the same light? Hahahaha. Oh, I’m glad this post gave you some of your memories! Love that!

  5. What a pleasure to read this piece. I really like how your time line flows, each part connecting with the bird theme and the poetry of your writing.

    • Luanne

      Carol, thank you so much for your kind words. It was amazing to me that I have these powerful bird memories at all the different points of my life. I wonder if birds are messengers.

  6. What a beautiful post. I’m so glad you chose to re-post it.

    • Luanne

      Ellen, thank you so much for reading it! I’m glad I did, too. It is a piece from the heart, so that’s always most fun to share!

  7. People will always write about birds no matter what these “wise men” tell us. Birds are beautiful and the stories about them are endless.

    • Luanne

      Anneli, haha, I love that “wise men” bit. Yes, birds are eternal, and there definitely should not be a moratorium (or worse) on writing about them. Maybe love has been “overdone” and we shouldn’t write about it? Um, no, I don’t think it works that way.

  8. corinnetrowbridge

    Wonderful collection of mini short stories! The story about the poor parakeet who died of grief was heartbreaking, for the bird and your grandmother. I have always been drawn to crows. We used have a “murder” of crows daily on our street when the kids were young. I loved calling out to them, “Bonjour Corbeaux!” They are the smartest of bird creatures and can befriend or taunt you. I never was able to make friends. West Nile virus hit and killed most of our crows in the area. We sometimes see them in a pair which gives me hope that perhaps they are multiplying once again. I still call out to them.

    • Luanne

      Corinne, I can’t believe you said that about crows. I’m fascinated by crows, and it breaks my heart that a lot of people think they are annoying birds. They are so smart. I remember a lot of crows in our backyard when I was a kid and even when I still lived in Michigan as an adult, but I rarely see them any more.
      Congratuations on your beautiful new blog, by the way!

  9. Beautiful, many emotions and ponderings. Amusing also, I especially love the description of having a problem with roof rats and teenagers,,,great connection of things that aren’t usually related. I haven’t thought of Woolworth’s in years and just realized that they’ve been gone for a little while now. Close to twenty years. I loved going to the mall with my mom when I was a child because there was a Woolworth’s in the lower level with a book section and a pet section; I would spend my time looking for a new book and gazing at the animals, especially the rodents. I don’t write about rodents, but they have been my lifelong obsession–I love their personalities, and their tiny faces that others find so disgusting! Rats and hamsters I’ve especially had a kinship with, and I’ve had a hamster in my life pretty much consistently for the last thirty years. There have been times I’ve wondered why the bond is so strong, for sure.

    All creatures are amazing, and although I’ve never owned a bird I do like to set up bird feeders and watch them visit. I’m looking forward to getting bird houses in the spring to set up on the balcony of our new apartment; we have quite a few squirrels already stopping by as regulars, but the more the merrier. Glad you reposted this piece.

    • Luanne

      Sun Absy, ah, the rodents! We had a very special pet years ago. She was a rat named Nutmeg Noodles. Although she was technically my son’s rat, she and I formed a very special bond. She would sit for hours on the back of my neck, under my hair, had an exercise cage to play in when I worked at the computer (next to me), and was the most caring pet I’ve ever had. For some reason, she was more solicitous of me than my dogs or cats have ever been. Oddest darn thing. Sadly, she only lived a little over two years because, like a lot of rats, she developed a large cancerous tumor. My friend, a vet, removed it, but it was too late for little NN.
      Thanks so much for your beautiful comment that sent me traveling down memory lane!

  10. Birds are so wonderful. They do seem to pop up and into all the most important times of our lives.

  11. I loved this post Luanne… anything about birds – and you took us through your bird life so beautifully and effortlessly…
    Co-incidentally I’ve just written a post about birds too – but quite unlike your lovely round robin of memories !

    • Luanne

      Valerie, the other day I posted a link to your recent post that begins with you tracing the path of the one gull on the Facebook page for my blog because I thought it was absolutely gorgeous. I sent it to my friend who thinks your prose writing is close to poetry.

      • Gosh, what a friend you are Luanne.Thank you so much for your appreciation and your practical support… and for your friend’s comment – what a gift – thank you both. XXXX

  12. You have a similar love and affiliation for birds. I like that you have captured them in little snippets with bits of wisdom and love attached. I enjoy clouds, nature and birds. But somehow, Love is the word that makes me want to write. Thus, from an experience or two, of online dating, I evolved my ‘craft’ of writing to include people’s love stories. I am still learning how, enjoy reading others, too. I, of course, join your ‘flock’ with the name of Robin! smiles…

    • Luanne

      Robin, I love that you have a bird name :). Yes, the focus of your blog while seldom actually on dating! always has a loving heart at the center of it.

  13. This is adorable. and yes, have threads like that. good photo best, Lynn

    • Luanne

      Thank you, Lynn. What is so cool to me about that pic is that I remember so well being that little girl at the cage and exactly how it felt from the inside out! And then to see myself at that age from today’s vantage point is quite strange.

  14. This is wonderful, Luanne. I’ve never owned a bird. It’s just always been dogs and now cats and dogs. But I’ve always loved birds — does that count? 🙂

    • Luanne

      Linda, it definitely counts! I’m so glad you liked the post! Now that I have cats I don’t feel it’s right to have birds when they would feel stressed by the cats. But there are always plenty of birds outside. Just saw a gorgeous bright green hummingbird two days ago!


    I love this article. We all have these threads of meaning in our lives and it is so interesting to discover and follow them like you did here. One of my threads is about hats, they find their way in all my books.
    And yes, I fully believe that parakeets can give meaning and hope and sometimes might work better than medicine.

    • Luanne

      Ah, I love the image of hats finding their way into all your (seven?) books! If only the nursing home had let her have her bird . . . . Thank you for reading and your kind words.

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