Getting Our Feathers Ruffled

Mysterious Bird Disease Hits Western Pennsylvania

We watched with apprehension, not wanting to take down our feeders, but knowing we should.  The birds had brought me so much entertainment during the Covid lockdown that I’d been accused of becoming a “crazy bird lady.”  I’d taken the Cornell E-bird course, bought the field guide to the birds of Pennsylvania, and acquired a new pair of binoculars to keep at my writing desk, from where I can gaze out the window at said feeders.  My kids (who did the accusing) bought me a huge “Birds of North America: The Complete Collection” poster for Mother’s Day, which I’ve since had framed and mounted on my studio wall.  (I’m still trying to figure out whether this gift was “ironic.”)

Now, supposedly, the threat has passed.  But does a threat really pass?  (Wasn’t Covid supposed to be over?)  We tentatively filled our feeders and watched out for signs of illness.  Our birds happily flocked back.  Pretty house finches with a soft diffusion of scarlet on their heads and breasts, screeching blue jays with their shrill “keep out of my way” calls, gentle cooing mourning doves, sweet brown song sparrows, handsome hairy woodpeckers with their distinct black and white plumage…but where were my cardinals?  Where was Lucille, my spunky female, with her muted red-brown feathers and expression of indignance, or was it haughtiness?  And Fred, the large red dynamo who ruled the feeder, squawking away even the most stubborn blue jay.   Listening to him sing, my son called him the “Spirit Bird” (although his spirit, spirit song sounded more like skireet skireet to me.)

Yesterday, I looked out my window to the faded wooden fence behind the feeder.  Was that Fred sitting on the top?  Under his bright red feathers were stripes of grey – the feathers on his crest stuck out like an unruly yucca plant.  He looked anything like the “Spirit Bird” who perched, looking so regal and formidable, on a high tree branch.  Now his coat looked like an old red velvet slipper where patches of velvet have worn off and only the grey fabric of the slipper remains underneath.  I panicked.  Did Fred have the mysterious bird disease?  I felt a pang of guilt for restocking the feeder.  I picked up my binoculars to get a closer look at him.  His black eyes were shiny and bright as he stood sentinel from the fence post.  I watched him take off from his perch and soar through the air with ease.  Somewhat relieved, I turned to the internet to find out what the malady might be.  

Fred was molting!  Apparently, this is something that cardinals do at the end of the summer.  The reason we don’t see it often is that some cardinals are actually embarrassed by their loss of feathers and prefer to hide.  I thought about all of us who decided to embrace our gray hair during Covid, when we, too, could hide, until our hair grew out. I though about my own experience – my hair had started to fall out after I thought I’d recovered from Covid.  I’d contracted the disease a week before I was finally scheduled to get the vaccine, and I spent five days fighting it in the hospital.  The stress resulted in what was termed a “hair shedding event,” with my hair coming out in clumps like Barkley’s, my husky mix, when he sluffs his thick undercoat and tufts of grey fur clog our knock-off Roomba. Poor Fred, I thought.  At least he wasn’t bald, like some of the cardinals I saw in the photos, with giant beaks and big beady eyes peering from tiny smooth grey heads.  They reminded me of the first time I saw a hairless cat, a grey hide with wrinkles and bulging eyes in a furless face.

 Fred reappeared in my sight line, and flew over to the bird feeder, where a glossy black starling perched on the other side.  A loud argument ensued, with each of the starling’s grating shrieks answered by Fred’s angry retort. I can only imagine the insults the starling was throwing at Fred.  But our Spirit Bird got the last word, the starling flew off, and Fred ate his dinner in peace.

My hair has stopped falling out and is coming back healthier than before.  According to the articles I read, our spirit bird will soon be decked out once again in his vibrant red coat. Keep the faith, Fred – you will be sporting that magnificent crest soon.  And tell Lucille it’s okay to come out of hiding.  I miss her.

Inspiration (or lack of it) in the time of Coronavirus

I read a blog post today by a fellow artist – she’s feeling like she’s doing more than ever and accomplishing less. I understand the feeling. Day Whatever of Social Isolation (I’ve Lost Count), and I stare at the computer screen trying to get motivated to continue a story that I started to write last week. Even as I write, I see my half-finished painting beckoning me from behind my laptop screen. I’m trying to figure out why, when “time to write or paint” is something that I and other artists dream of and wish for, and it’s suddenly bestowed upon us, we can’t focus. I’m not speaking for everyone, I know. Stephen King said in an interview on NPR this week that he has almost finished writing his new book during isolation. But my attention span is shorter than ever. I don’t paint, because I know that I will need a few hours to paint, and I don’t have the mindset to commit to a three-hour endeavor. I can’t write, because writing requires concentration that I don’t have right now. I can edit – my first chapter has been revised, revised again, and edited to perfection. (I challenge you to try to find one error in spelling, mechanics, or style.) However, there is hope. This is the time to do those things or pursue those interests which we’ve “always wanted to but never had the time to.” For my daughter, it’s the violin. She bought a starter violin (I had no idea such things existed) and signed up for a masterclass. For my husband, it’s reading fiction – a genre he has finally embraced. For my son, it’s cooking – for which I am grateful, as I’ve been the beneficiary of said hobby. And for me – birds! I’ve always been interested in their movements, their coloring, their habitats, their calls – and I’ve downloaded two Apps which have helped me identify the downy woodpecker at our feeder each morning and the house sparrows who’ve been hanging out in our rhododendron tree. And, here is the result of this – a painting idea took shape while watching the birds. An abstract – a genre which, up until now, has daunted me. I’ve realized this new pursuit has opened my mind to create in a different way. And, here is something else. As the first chapter of my novel sat in isolation for a week, I decided to take a two-week mini-writing workshop on short fiction (a commitment of only 20 – 30 minutes a day) which asked some thoughtful questions about writing prompts we’d responded to. I asked those same questions of the story that I’d begun. This sparked an idea which resulted in my writing the outline of Chapter 2 this morning. Having dutifully set my timer to the suggested 20 minutes, I was surprised to find that I wrote well past that.

It is so easy to fall into ennui. The sun, which was glaring on my screen as I began to write this has suddenly disappeared, and out of nowhere, dark clouds have descended and the rain is pattering against my window. I promise you that this is not a metaphor – the weather has actually changed that quickly. And, under these trying times, so do our moods. It’s okay to roll with that. It’s okay to be a little bored, a little uninspired, and a little gloomy – for a little while. The trick, I think, is not to let that drag you down. Allow yourselves those moments, but don’t get caught in the grey for too long. Find a way to let the sun shine (okay, that was a metaphor) by doing something else – something different – whether it’s coloring a Mandala, playing a challenging board game, dancing to your favorite song – or one you’ve never heard before! – or trying to make something incredible with the ingredients that you have in your cupboard (might I suggest Chipotle bowls – if you have rice and beans you’re off to a good start).

I wish you well. I wish you inspiration. I wish you periods of sunshine to offset the periods of rain.