©2016 By Bob Litton
NOTE TO READERS: In the narrative below, I will be using masculine and feminine pronouns while referring to the birds I discuss, when actually I had no idea of what their genders were. I believe readers will understand my reason for assuming this literary license in preference to factual accuracy if they take the time to substitute with the neuter forms.
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¶Birds affect our imagination more than any other creatures because they seem to be the least bounded in their movements. They embody our concept of total freedom. The most famous of them — the eagle and the dove — have been assumed to be messengers from the gods; the raven and the owl supposedly are omens of catastrophe, or at least ill fortune. Almost any bird fills us with awe because of its beautiful plumage or melodious “song”.
¶My own experience of birds has been generally restricted to the commoner species: house sparrows, barn swallows, grackles, and jays. Less frequently have I observed the rarer robins, hummingbirds and mockingbirds, not to mention a few species I cannot name because I saw them only once and had not the remotest idea what they were. I am neither an ornithologist nor a bird watcher.
¶Nonetheless, just to touch a wild bird, of whatever variety, or to have one perceiving me as an aid or threat can be a revelation of sorts. I recall an episode during my elementary school years — I was nine or ten years old — when a sparrow managed to force his way into our house. He perched quietly upon my right shoulder as I was half-reclined on my bed, reading some magazine. He must have been there at least a minute before I realized it, because I had sensed his weight as he settled but was only half aware of what I assumed must be my collar slipping. Finally one of his movements broke in on my consciousness, and you can imagine the shock I felt upon looking around to discover a sparrow on my shoulder. I jumped up in such a fright that all my usual reverence for Nature evaporated. It was the bird’s turn to be terrified now as I chased him around the house, swatting at him with a broom. At last the harried creature found his exit through what must have been his entry, a broken loose corner of the front door screen.
¶In later years I occasionally wondered if that bird had previously been tamed by some human so that he believed it quite a normal behavior to alight on my shoulder. I regretted acting as I had toward the sparrow, but it was absurd to regret anything done while wrought up as I was then. If another sparrow were to perch on my shoulder now I would probably react in much the same way. Anyhow, he did manage to escape uninjured.
¶A year or two later, while I was visiting one of my uncles in the Rio Grande Valley, in deep South Texas, another sparrow stunned itself by flying against the living room’s large plate glass window. I heard her thump and went out on the porch to see whether she was still alive. The dazed bird was squatting there on the cement porch, huddled up much as though she were brooding over eggs. I picked the creature up and smoothed her feathers for a couple of minutes. Body-wise, she was unharmed, as far as I could tell, but she was so indifferent to me and to her environment generally that I got the idea she might have suffered brain damage. Maybe the collision had turned the bird into an idiot. I set the sparrow on the grassy lawn and went to fetch a saucer of water, hoping on the way that she would be gone when I returned. But she wasn’t; there she was, stupid in the sun, when I got back. I put the saucer down in front of the sparrow’s beak, and still she took no notice. By now I was getting frustrated; there were other things I wanted to do that day. I stood hovering over the little creature like a human Eiffel tower and tried my best to imitate a marine sergeant’s tone: “Fly! Go on! Fly away!” The sparrow didn’t move. Cruel out of desperation, I bent down, picked the bird up, and tossed her into the air. She went up before my thrust, dropped a foot or two, flapped madly a second, hovering, and then took off.
¶That should atone, I thought, for the earlier sparrow episode. For days afterwards I went about feeling warmly pantheistic. “Just don’t startle me, Mother Nature,” I mused, “and I’ll serve you, but you must expect a reaction if you surprise your devotee.”
¶Mother Nature must not have been placated by my vow or intimidated by my threat, because the next time I had direct contact with a bird it came swooping out of a scrub oak’s leafy canopy and made a dive bomber’s attack at my head. (That was when I was attending the university.) Perhaps some unintended provocation was apparent in that I was wearing a wide-brimmed panama with a brightly colored band. Everyone knows how some birds like to decorate their nests with bright colors. Also, this particular assailant was a mockingbird, a species known for its jealous sense of private domain. I had often seen some mockingbird careering over a squirrel’s or cat’s back, but I had never expected one to be audacious enough to attack a human, especially me.
¶But that was in no way the last such incident. A few years later, as I was opening the gate to my yard, I heard some loud squawks and caws at my feet as well as the same above and behind me. Startled to a stop, I glanced down and then up. On the flag stone walk below, a terrified young blue jay was running around in circles and screeching at the top of his voice. Above me, swooping, flapping and screeching in their turn, were two full-grown and very angry jays, presumably the youngster’s anxious parents. Apparently, I had intruded on his first training flight and scared him so much he couldn’t leave the ground. He must have been perched in one of the diamond-shaped vacancies of the chain-link fence when I pushed it open. Papa and Mama jay continued to make diving sorties at my head, forcing me to duck and rush to the steps of my apartment. After Junior had regained his wind and wits, his parents zoomed after him into the foliage of a nearby pecan tree. I thought I discerned derisive notes in their victorious cawing as they flew from one branch to another.
¶Well, that brings me almost up to date; but I feel that this familiar essay won’t be complete unless I reprise briefly that episode of the day I had my first mystical experience, which involved a mockingbird. You can read the anecdote more fully by pulling up my post of March 30, 2015 titled “My Spiritual Journey (to date)”. I was deeply involved in Alcoholics Anonymous at the time and had finally come around to recognizing that possibly there really is a god, or “higher power” as the 12-Steppers prefer to call to him/her/it. I had been impressed by how, at every meeting, at least five out of 20-plus attendees would speak almost directly to my situation, and how those folks fervently believed that the “higher power” spoke to them through other people. I wondered if the only voices God used were those of humans: why not other creatures? One day, I left my apartment and was unlocking the door to my truck when I heard a mockingbird behind me, chirping his plagiarized songs. I turned around to see a young oak tree about seven feet tall that had been planted in a green space separating two parking areas. I couldn’t see the bird, but I was certain he was in that tree. I stood still several minutes trying to detect a message from God in that bird’s voice, but of course to no avail. Finally I said, “Sorry, God. Guess I’m just not there yet.” Then I got into my truck and drove away.
¶The next morning, a Sunday, lying in my bed and reading a New Yorker magazine, I perused the translation of a poem by Lars Gustafson and translated from the Swedish by Yvonne L. Sandstroem. The crux of the poem was about an 86-year-old Mexican woman who had recently died. When the doctors examined her they discovered she had been carrying around a dead fetus in her womb for 60 years. Stuck right in the middle of the lengthy poem were the following lines about a bird who apparently had annoyingly caught the attention of the poet as he was trying to compose his poem. They are an interruption in the poem, yet a part of it:
….. Mockingbird, what do you want?
You have so many voices, and I don’t know which one of them to take seriously.
The scornful sometimes, the complaining sometimes —
then there’s a kind of clucking,
on certain days in early spring,
when dampness still clings to the moss on the oaks,
as if you didn’t quite want to speak out.
Mockingbird in the green oak tree!
What’s the secret you sit there trying to
¶That was the real beginning of my spiritual journey. Ever since that morning, whenever I hear a mockingbird I feel uplifted.