Tuesday, February 14, 2017

My place among the birders

Though it is bitter and sometimes barren up here in Minnesota this time of year, the birds never disappear. There are always a few geese heading somewhere important in a small formation, low in the sky, honking as they go. The many crows are not mine to speak of this winter, but the astonishment of robins certainly were. Their rust bellied roosting in my neighborhood's trees, by the ten thousands, for two or three days, was a natural world event that burned a piece of love into my heart that will not soon dissolve.

Nevertheless, this winter the eagles went... somewhere. Living by the great Mississippi River Flyway I rarely go even a week or two without seeing some white-headed, sweet-hearted monster of a bird flinging about on the wilderness of air above me. But December went, and January went too, and though I was out along the river most of all those 62 days I didn't see a single Eagle.

Then, at the start of February, my wife and I crossed a local river bridge and plunged down a bike and walking path that cut through some woods. A fine bald eagle rose up to meet us, like as if we could have reached out and plucked him from the air. Our conversation, ever delightful, this one time dropped silent in mid sentence with the astonishment of the encounter. The bird wheeled up and away, leaving us with the brief and fabulous gift of itself.

Two days later I was walking alone to the University, and to work. I was on the river path, two or three miles north of where we had encountered that first bird, and there, a bald eagle again, swooping near and over me, rose up, said hello, so to speak, and headed out into the city.

Was this the same bird?

I think this was the same bird.

I have idly dreamed more than once of owning the birder's arsenal; the names of all the kinds of birds, something more than "There is a blue jay" or "There is a Robin". I have wanted to know the great scientific nomenclatures. "This is an American Avocet. This is Semipalmated Plover." But in that moment of seeing what was maybe the same eagle I had seen before, I had a deeper wish. I wished I had the names of the individual birds. I wished I could see to the pure individuality of each bird instead of their type. A cardinal in my yard can become, say, Theo, known to me in every detail and instantly recognized should I ever see him again. Each bird would be a whole story. Each bird would be its own name.

And this mighty and personable eagle who I will insist is just one bird because I want it to be and hope it is? If his name is not merely, along with all his kind, Bald Eagle, what will be his name?

I will call that bird Winter.

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