Wednesday, June 12, 2019

tales on wing

I am a bird junkie.

To call me a birder would be an insult to those people who study their whole lives to learn all there is to know about birds, and who then go trudging through the wild to make that list a living reality. Compared to them, I am not even a tyro.

But I have loved watching and interacting with birds my entire life. It was one reason I felt the loss of a garden when I moved to my current house. I am not devoid of greenery here. But my palm trees and planter-confined vines are not the avian magnets of my trees in Villa Obregón.

That is why I have been so fascinated with my hummingbird visitors. They were initially the only birds that made it into the secret valley that is my patio. I suspect birds find the space a bit confining.

Over the past year, a few other birds have dared this raptor hole. It started with English sparrows cavorting in the vines. Then the great-tailed grackles started appearing. First on the plastic over my shower chimney. The braver set would occasionally fly down to my swimming pool for a drink, and stand on the edge of the pool with that Grackle affectation of beak-in-the-air like pioneers watching the mesas for the appearance of war parties.

When I returned from my last set of trips, I had a new visitor. A mourning dove. Each day, she (as I would later discover) would fly to the edge of the pool with her widow's plaintive call, and daintily drink a bit of water. She would then fly to the top of one of the pavilions. Cooing all the way in her strigine coo.

She would show up regularly each day. That should have been a clue that she was not commuting a long distance.

On one of my walks on the upstairs terrace, I saw why my pool had become her oasis. She was nesting near the top of one of my twin palm trees. Her drab plumage blended in perfectly with the brown matting of the tree.

No matter how many times I walked around the track, on each lap past her, she would eye me warily. But she never budged from the nest. Immobility is often the best defense for vegetarians at the bottom of the food chain.

Her eye reminded me of something. Something that happened years ago that stoked my interest in birds.

My brother and I were rescuers. If we found a needy or wounded bird, we would scoop it up and take it home.

I have no idea how many nestlings and injured adult birds we admitted to the Cotton Bird Hospital. And I cannot tell you what happened to most of them. But I bet I know. Adding young boys to injured birds is not an equation that most hospitals would boast about.

Our recovery rate must have been about the same as Doctor Kavorkian's. My guess is that our mother acted as a volunteer mortuary detail -- cleaning up the evidence of potential trauma and disposing of it before two young boys hurried to the makeshift cages to see how the patients were doing that morning.

If asked, my mother would not have been the type of parent who lies to her children with such transparent constructions as: "Its mother came and got it last night" or "It wanted to join other birds in the zoo." She would have honestly told us, like all living things will do, it died.

But I honestly do not remember asking. There were always new victims to usher into the afterlife of Birdland.

One day, we found a mourning dove. I think something was wrong with its wing. But it was the largest patient we had ever recovered. Home it went and into a cage.

By now we had developed a routine of researching the favored foods of our patients in the Encyclopedia Americana that was stored in the bookshelf under the row of bird cages we had accumulated. Armed with knowledge, the treatment began. That is how I know mourning doves are vegetarian.

Whatever we did, it worked. Within a week, we released the dove. She sat on the edge of the cage when we opened it outside. I suspect she had considered the possibility that we were young Hannibal Lecters just waiting to pounce on her. Immobility was her ruse.

And with one fell swoop, she darted up into our walnut tree with her distinctive wing whistle and that plaintive call common to her kind. When we returned, she had flown away. I assume. None of our cats had a guilty look. But, do they ever?

So, I took an immediate liking to the nesting mother in my palm tree. She became the repository of my childhood dreams. And I smiled each time I passed the nest.

Last night, I noticed something odd. She was not there. And she was not there this morning. Nor has she flown down to the pool for her drink. It appears she is gone.

I cannot see into the nest because it is too high. To alleviate my curiosity, I tried a few shots with my camera held over my head. The results will remain optimistically inconclusive.

I was about to write that not every nature tale has a happy ending. But this one does.

Just as I was typing "The results will remain optimistically inconclusive," they became conclusive -- and still optimistic. The mourning dove flew down to the pool. With her coo. Her wing whistle. And a packet of happy memories.

And that is why I am a bird junkie. Their very existence, their song, their will to survive are tales on wings for us to learn.

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