The Bird Story

by Linda Tiessen Wiebe

I was going to write about feeling discouraged at my usual Christmas blues. Before typing the first word, I happened to look up at the bare tree branches outside my window. There, perched on the edge of a branch was a splash of brilliant orange.

"Wow," I thought, "What kind of bird is that? What a beautiful color for this November season."

I quickly grabbed my binoculars and set my sights. The bird was sleeping, with its beak tucked beside its chest. My view was still a bit blurry, but it seemed he had a black cap, making a striking contrast with his vermillion feathers. An over-wintering robin or oriole? As my fingers turned the focus dial, I remembered other birds I had seen since starting to watch them. I started thinking of the sense of awe at "discovering" a well-camoflagued bird. The striking beauty of such seemingly simple creatures. The way I could watch one for a long time. The joy at observing some of the birds playing in flight.

I don't really know how I became interested in watching birds. I worked on a school project on birds when I was eight or nine. I think the thrill of seeing the goldfinch I had been coloring fly by me the next day was part of it. Naming the birds is part of the fun. The general greyish-brownish colorings become more specific when you have to figure what kind of sparrow you're watching. And I still am struck with the bright colors of blue jays, orioles, goldfinches and some of the woodpeckers around here. I even saw a beautiful olive-breasted female robin this summer, breaking my stereotypical perception of this common bird. Actually looking at what these birds are made of, their size and features and colors, and watching how they fly or perch or walk, evokes a wonder in me. Birds seem so delicate, yet they survive cold winters, fly incredible distances. Or maybe it's the variety of a species that excites me. It could be the way all birdsongs seem to pierce through whatever background noise there is. Or maybe I somehow connect flying birds with a more transcendant point of view. I really don't know. But I generally find it calming, feel myself becoming more a part of the environment I'm watching, than the usual urban alien. It's almost as if I feel more myself when I'm watching them.

Well, as I was reminiscing, I finally got my winter fireball in sight. What kind of bird would it be? It turns out that it was actually the peel of a mandarin orange that someone had tossed into the tree. The light and the blurry vision had deceived me. Or maybe it was my desire to see a bird right about now.

Well, as I was reminiscing, I finally got my winter fireball in sight. What kind of bird would it be? It turns out that it was actually the peel of a mandarin orange that someone had tossed into the tree.

I had forgotten my task of cataloging my recurring xmas depression; a sense of alienation from humanity, ridiculous insecurities, indignation at the sense of weakness these feelings bring up in me. My feathery illusion may not have been "real," but it reminded me of birds that were. I smiled when I thought, maybe I should pretend this bird is real anyway. What would I do if it were? In the act of observing and identifying it, I would be caught up in a kind of wonder. Exactly the opposite of where my gothic guilt would take me.

It's kind of funny because in my frustration I had imagined this dark mood as a giant bird claw, tenaciously carrying me away, despite all my struggle. It is ironic to see that the mandarin-cum-oriole is also a bird image, and that birds seen one way can reflect delicacy and freedom, and another--immutable fatalism.

When I think about it, birds in nature are not just like the pastoral view I described them in. Many birds hunt and kill. There is struggle for pecking order in large flocks. And overpopulation of some city birds can become a health hazard. Both the talon and the evening song belong in this bird picture. In "Nature" this seems as it should be, a well-balanced ecosystem. Why would I expect something different personally? Especially if I remember that I'm a part of nature. Maybe both my struggles with emotional limits and my sense of freedom and groundedness belong in my life. Perhaps they need each other to achieve a greater whole, one that I don't usually perceive. To insist things should be different creates even weirder emotions, because you begin to chafe against reality. On the other hand acceptance can foster a more gracious view. The limitations don't go away; they just no longer obscure other facets of life.

Then again, it was just an orange peel...

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