Essay: Trained by the birds

Birds have been my best teachers lately. It started with chickens. A friend asked me to put her chickens to bed for a few nights. All I had to do was show up at dark, make sure they were inside their coops, close the hatches and turn out the lights. Simple, right? Not for me.

The first night I arrived at 6:30, and it wasn’t yet dark so many of the chickens were still wandering around in their pens and a few had somehow escaped into the barnyard. I was on my way out to dinner with friends.

“Okay”, I thought, “I’ll pick up my neighbor first and then come back and close the pens.”

I worried about the timing because I knew raccoons would take advantage if I was late, and preventing that, after all, was the whole point. Ten minutes later I returned and there were still some stragglers ambling about. Did I sit it out? No, I went into the pens, got all the hens squawking, chased them inside, riled up the roosters, and finally got all five coops closed up, only to notice there was still a hen AWOL in the yard. It took some more time to scoop her up and make sure I put her into the correct coop. By the time I got to dinner I was aflutter myself.

The next day was only a little better. It was darker and there were more chickens ready for bed, but still I created a lot of work for myself. Once again, I went into the pens, had to escape being clawed by one of the roosters and generally stirred up a fuss. Unnecessary fuss, as I learned the third night when I could finally be patient and show up at dark when I was supposed to. The chickens had put themselves to bed. All I had to do was quietly go in the coop, close the hatches, and turn out the lights, just like my friend had said. It was simple and a metaphor, of course, because like many people, I often create extra work for myself worrying, fussing, jumping in instead of waiting and letting things take their own sweet time.

Now I have a guiding mantra — “chickens.” When I catch myself stirring up work where patience is required, I remember the chickens and take a deep breath. They will come inside as soon as it is dark.

Yesterday, I learned another humbling lesson at the hands, or wings, of some birds. An avid feeder-watcher, I know whom I feed. I have assumed therefore I know who lives in our yard. For years, I told my father with authority that there are no slate-colored juncos. They don’t come to my feeder, so I could only see them when I visited him in Long Island; same with cedar waxwings. When I want to try to catch sight of a bluebird, I visit Duarte’s Pond because I have seen them there before.

When a friend pulled into the driveway for an afternoon walk and stood outside staring into the big evergreen in our roundabout, I thought she needed a few minutes alone, so I waited inside. Finally, she came rushing in.

“Get your binoculars. There are juncos, cedar waxwings, and bluebirds eating the grapes growing up the side of your spruce.”

Stunned, I did as told. It was true. We stood side by side in the waning light, listening and watching. I missed the bluebirds, but saw the group of waxwings. They were swooping in and out, jabbing at the withered grapes, underbellies flashing yellow against the green needles. I spent a long time studying two juncos that hopped from stonewall to grapevine and back. Knowing these sweet birds are here connects me to Dad, who died this spring. When I see them I feel close to him.

This morning I looked up bluebirds, waxwings, and juncos in the Sibley Guide to Birds and learned these birds are always here, year-round. Probably we have shared this yard for years, and I haven’t noticed. Why is it my curiosity is directed to other places? I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when she wises up about her ruby slippers. All along what I’ve been looking for has been right in front of me, and I’ve been oblivious.

This is an important reminder, especially now. A year-rounder, like these birds, I can start to feel isolated as businesses close, the Island thins out, and darkness comes early. I can make the mistake of thinking that important things happen elsewhere and miss the glories of my own backyard. There’s plenty to discover right here if I pay attention (bluebirds, juncos, waxwings), and I’m patient (chickens).

Laura Wainwright is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury. Her essays appear on the OpEd Page occasionally.