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Wild Birds of Winter and Other Musings about Birds

Tuesday 02 February 2016 at 5:53 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for January 28, 2016, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Our yard is filling up with finches, mostly goldfinches.  These beautiful little birds usually don’t come around much until February, even when you put food out for them in your bird feeder, -- there are too many wild seeds, etc., available for them to bother with your allurements.  Their favorite food is thistle seeds, which is what my wife put out for them in a special “finch feeder.”  Maybe that’s why they showed up before February, or maybe it’s because of the snow in Arkansas and other northern regions.  In any case, they seem to be here to stay in our yard for a while; and since I can see their feeder from my studio window, I will enjoy their prolonged visit.

            This is also the time of year the martins (not to be confused with martens, the furry, weasel-like creatures) return to Texas.  To enjoy their company, you have to build special martin houses for them, and you’d better clean their house between last year’s stay and this year’s or else they’ll reject your rental house and look elsewhere for a clean one.  I learned that as a youngster when my parents used to maintain a couple of martin houses.  Martins are delightful to watch, but they are very persnickety!

            Last week, as I was looking out the front window of the house, an enormous flock of black birds (probably grackles) landed on the lawn in the front yard.  There were so many that the lawn was like a black carpet, -- it kind of scared me as it conjured up memories of the Hitchcock movie, The Birds.  Just as suddenly as they had landed, they took off, all at once, nearly turning the sky black.  I haven’t seen them since.  Come to think of it, I never saw anything like that before.  The experience left me wondering, “What’s their story?” 

            According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “birds” belong to the class “Aves,” which I have also seen spelled “Avine.”  However, this must not be on the same level as “canine” or “feline,” because the eagle is referred to as “aquiline,” and the peacock is identified as “pavonine.”  Obviously, I need to leave such identifications to the biologists and concentrate on the aesthetics of bird watching.  However, some paleo biologists, who are also evolutionists, believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs.  That’s an incredulous thought!  How could something as beautiful as a golden finch have evolved from something as hideously ugly as a dinosaur?  I will stick to aesthetics.

            To many of us who enjoy our yard full of birds, these feathered gifts of God are beautiful because of their plumage and also because of their singing.  Put the two together and you have something worth experiencing!  Recently I came across a picture of what was labeled as the most beautiful bird in the world; its plumage had extraordinary colorings, and I thought it would be a great subject to watercolor.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the bird or whether I saw it in a book, a magazine, or online.  If anyone knows the name of this bird, I would appreciate the information.

            There was an immensely large bird population on my grandfather’s farm in Dime Box, and a much smaller population in town.  Back in the 1940’s the scissor-tailed flycatcher was especially prolific, -- you saw them everywhere.  In recent visits to Dime Box, I never saw any. 

            As a child, I particularly liked these birds because they had such absurdly long forked tails and were extremely aggressive, even under vexing circumstances attacking much larger birds such as hawks, crows and owls.  With their gray and salmon-pink colored bodies and tails which were black on top and white underneath, they were very strikingly beautiful creatures to observe.  They were mean, beautiful and ridiculous all at the same time.  In those days, the scissor-tail was without a doubt my favorite bird.

            As an adult, I favor the owl above all other birds.  The problem is that even with one living in our subdivision, I don’t get to see him very often.  I hear him at night quite frequently, but have to really search for him to see him during the day.  Some folks consider owls kind of weird-looking, but I guess weird looks beautiful to me, because I think they are resplendently splendid!  The owl is the only bird I have ever written a poem about.  Shelley is famous for his skylark, Keats is known for his nightingale, so, when I become a famous poet, I will be known for my owl.   In my poem, I try to indicate the sounds the owl makes.  Owls wouldn’t win any awards for singing, but perhaps I like them because they are symbols of wisdom.

            Human beings write poems about birds and use them as some of mankind’s most cherished symbols.  Over the centuries, humans have made, in addition to the owl as a symbol of wisdom, the dove a symbol of peace; the eagle a symbol of victory and freedom; the swam, beauty; the raven, death; the bluebird, happiness; the robin, springtime; the peacock, vanity; the goose, silliness and stupidity; the turkey, failure; and the chicken, cowardice.  Probably the best loved bird of them all, the cardinal (the State Bird of seven States), has become a symbol of Christmas.  I still like the owl best.


       Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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