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Faith in Vermont: Backyard Birds and Growing Up

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Posted on April 11, 2017 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



I have become a person who watches birds.

For as long I’ve known him – my entire life – my father has been a birdwatcher. Growing up, we always had bird feeders in the yard and birdhouses (which he built himself) on our trees. He could usually, immediately, name any bird that happened by; if he couldn’t he’d pull down our 1965 copy of A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America. When he passed that book on to our family this past year, I found that he’d taken notes in felt-tip pen of precisely where and when he’d seen each bird.

I never paid much attention to this peculiar birdwatching habit: I didn’t see the point. Birds were always just part of the scenery, hanging around in the background. They were nice, but far less important than studying, socializing, or going to the mall. Why should I bother to learn their names?

My dismissive attitude towards birds and birdwatching continued for nearly 20 years. I lived in cities for most of that time, where everything was too loud and too busy to even notice birds. Birdwatching, when I thought of it at all, seemed like a hobby for “old people:” people who had time on their hands, pricey binoculars around their necks, floppy-brimmed hats on their heads, and chunky hiking boots on their feet.

Change began gradually, after our family moved to Vermont. I can pinpoint the moment my interest in birds shifted: I was walking the dog, and I heard a mockingbird call. I didn’t know it was a mockingbird at the time, but I recognized the sad, haunting call as something that I’d heard often during the long, lazy afternoons of my childhood. When I got home, I looked it up. Now I knew one bird.

The watershed moment came when I began homeschooling our two oldest daughters during our sabbatical in California. On the recommendation of a homeschool website, we started reading one chapter a week in The Burgess Bird Book for Children, a 1930 classic by Thornton Burgess in which each chapter introduces a particular group of birds by incorporating a large amount of information behind cute little stories of bird characters (Jenny Wren, Blackie the Crow, Hooty the Owl, etc.) We used the Audubon Society website to view photos of each bird and listen to their calls. I learned just as much as my daughters.

When we returned to Vermont, I could apply my new ornithological knowledge to our backyard. Especially during winter, when we hung a bird feeder on a nearby tree, I observed an ongoing bird drama unfolding outside the picture window above the kitchen sink.

I wish I’d paid attention and learned more about birds from my father when I was growing up; I’m thankful that my own daughters seem to be wiser than me. Perhaps because we have no television, most of them get as excited as I do when a new or rare or beautiful bird shows up in our yard.

During these early weeks of spring we’ve had some exciting additions to our wintertime staples of white-breasted juncos, tufted titmice, chickadees, pileated woodpeckers, and the crows who dive-bombed our compost. Now we see cardinals and red-winged blackbirds regularly. It looks like some bluebirds are settling into the two birdhouses that my daughter built with my father. We’ve spotted barred owls and red-tailed hawks at close range. A wild turkey emerges almost daily from the brush bordering our field to pick at the grass (hopefully munching plenty of ticks), sending our dog – confined to the house – into a barking frenzy. We keep seeing a couple of Canada geese flying back and forth overhead; we suspect that they are nesting somewhere nearby.

The big excitement yesterday was when a grey squirrel scrambled up the tree and leaped onto the bird feeder, where it hung upside-down and helped itself to the suet. It was the first time that’s happened; a sign that it’s time to empty the birdfeeder until next winter.

***

My daughters love our yard and the nature that they’re able to observe there. But what they get really excited about are trips to Burlington, Montreal, the Six Flags Great Escape Indoor Water and Amusement Parks, and the indoor arcades of Whirlie’s World and Pizza Putt.

As far as I’m concerned, this proves that children don’t know what’s best for them.

***

I have become a person who relates more to the parents than to the heroes and heroines of Disney/Pixar animated films.

This was particularly true of the latest Disney film, Moana, which we saw at the Middlebury Marquis in the winter of 2016.

Moana is the daughter of a Pacific Island chief, who sings to her in the opening number about the charms of their agrarian village. The refrain is: “And no one leaves.” Moana’s father concludes by singing, “You can find happiness right where you are.”

Sounds like great advice to me, but of course because she’s a teenager (and a Disney heroine), Moana can’t find happiness where she is. She longs for the sea; it turns out that her ancestors were ocean voyagers before settling on the island. (Also, there’s an old curse that she needs to help the demi-god Maui reverse.)

Moana’s journey of self-discovery is moving; I can’t sit through many movies without crying these days, and Moana was no different. But the ending baffled me: Having voyaged bravely across the ocean to save her island, Moana convinces her entire village to return to their oceangoing ways. The final scene shows them all on boats, singing about setting a course to find “a brand new island everywhere we roam.”

It’s stirring, but wait a minute! What was wrong with the island that they were already on? Why would they want to leave their settled agrarian village and return to a nomadic, subsistence lifestyle? It sounds exhausting. Isn’t that the opposite of progress?

I asked some 7- to 9-year-old girls whether this ending made sense. “Yes,” they said, looking at me like I’d just sprouted horns. It’s the sort of ending that makes the most sense if you’re young; if all of life is spread out ahead of you like the open sea.

My favorite line from that final song: “We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain.”

I am getting old.

***

Now, my two oldest daughters can dress and groom themselves, and make their own beds. They can put their two younger sisters to bed, and they deal with toddler tantrums better than I. One has discovered a love of filmmaking, piano, and theater; the other has embraced building, horses, and theater.

My eldest daughter, who will proudly make her stage debut as “Third Murderer” in a homeschool production of Macbeth, recently picked out an Easter dress at Junebug. It was the 9-year-old version of a black cocktail dress.

They are getting older.

***

My second daughter read the book Clementine’s Letter with me this week, including a passage about a story that Clementine’s teacher tells her:

“’The mother bird lays her eggs and takes very good care of them. She sits on them until they hatch and then she keeps them warm and feeds them in the nest,’ he said….

“’And then one day, after the babies have been sitting on the branch outside the nest for a while, do you know what the mother bird does?’

“’Yes, I do,’ I said. ‘Whack! Out of the blue, she kicks them off the branch. I think there should be a bird jail for mothers like that.’”

My daughter looked up at me. “Really? Birds really do that?” she asked. “I don’t think I’d like a mother like that, either.”

I explained that that’s how birds learn to fly.

I’m not a mother like that. Not yet. So far, I haven’t needed to be: My daughters have begun to beat their wings already, sometimes against me, and sometimes against the open air, preparing to fly.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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