Friday, May 9, 2008

The Dignified Visitor

Having a bird feeder outside my kitchen window provides plenty of company any time I'm cooking. The feeder attracts a predictable succession of visitors: chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, finches and woodpeckers. But on rare occasions, I'll be greeted with a surprise. And so it was today, when a rose-breasted grosbeak stopped by for a snack.

The grosbeaks only show up once or twice a year, and leave about as quickly as they arrive, so I savor every moment. Not only are they strikingly beautiful birds, they carry themselves with distinction and project plenty of personality.

I recalled scribbling a bit about the grosbeaks before, so here are a few excerpts from a posting back in December 2006:

I admire bird watchers for the same reasons I admire landscape painters. Both have a heightened ability to perceive the miracles that others walk past, that others ignore, that others resent. Their skills and knowledge - accumulated bit by bit, by chance and by grace, through perseverance and discipline – make their efforts seem effortless. Life would be diminished without them.

It amazed me when I’d pick up the newspaper and read of birders who’d identified 50 or 60 species on a half day outing. How could they detect what remained invisible to me? After joining them for a few field trips and watching them in action, I was no less amazed.

Since then, birds have become my faithful companions. Whenever the winter sun is shining on my house, birds are at the window…making hundreds of visits every hour to the feeders I’ve placed there.

The chickadee, the nuthatch, the titmouse, the goldfinch, and the wren are so reliably familiar that any other bird stands out immediately. And my knowledge of birds is so slight that I need a bird book to identify the occasional newcomer. In that way I learn that it is a black and white warbler I see, or a rose-breasted grosbeak.

There is no bird in our eastern American avifauna that is better worth an acquaintance than the Rose-breasted Grosbeak….The Rose-breast is a handsome bird…but not so beautiful as to distract the observer from the life and habits of the bird. And this, the character of the bird, is the finest thing about him.

In this jaded age, this smarmy, hard-edged, irony-infested age, I open an old book that is flagrantly unfashionable with its sentimental anthropomorphism. But its incorrect style is what I especially enjoy about the 1917 volume, Birds of America, edited by Gilbert Pearson.

Almost all observers are impressed with the vital wholesomeness of this Grosbeak. He is seldom nervous and seldom allows trivial things to disturb him. He acts with dignity and yet with a quickness and precision and quiet forcefulness that are almost ideal….It would almost seem as though the bird had a conscience, and knew what it was to be a gentleman.

Watching him calmly sample the black-oil sunflower seeds, I had to agree it was dignity I saw in the bird’s bearing and manner. His quiet forcefulness held my attention for a half-hour, until he finally flew away.

Make a special journey to the wood lot where he lives and spend a morning in his company. You will go home with the feeling of having met one of the best types of efficient, resourceful, and virile Americans.

I could imagine that today’s well-informed birders cringe at this kind of description. On the other hand, I suspect they can find room for something more than strict objectivity. In any event, I hope so, just as I hope the birds are happy to see me when I step out every morning to refill their feeders.

This time of year, the grosbeaks have flown south. I hope they’re enjoying their winter and I hope they're finding great pleasure in their flights through the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.

Who’s to say they’re not?

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