Silhouette of a bird in a tree at sunset

Picture by Sonny Wolf at Unsplash

Birds are all around us. Though the tricky part is being able to identify them correctly. It may help to ask yourself the following questions: What shape is the bird’s tail? How does it behave? Does it climb trees? Swim? What are its wing patterns?

My father noticed it first – thrashing helplessly in the alligator’s jaws. A muffled crunch, clean as a lock snapping shut, then the downy feathers stilled. Immature sora, he said. I thought he meant soaring and for a moment I pictured the poor thing alive, skimming beneath the clouds. But rail chicks can’t fly. I knew that. I memorized bird facts like there was going to be a test before we got back to the car. A vagrant, my father mused. An accidental. Its parents blown off course by a storm, migrating past their normal breeding range so instead of ending up on a beach, sidestepping the tide, the sora became an Everglades hors d’oeuvres. Lesson number six, my father said. Don’t get caught napping.   

To validate the sighting of a rare or accidental bird, the rule is that at least two competent observers should see the bird and document its features in detail in their notes.

I used to look for specific warning signs: bills piling up, an incident at work, the meal I’d nuked still thawing around the edges. Sometimes there aren’t any. A fist connects suddenly with my arm. My hair is yanked from its roots. I’ll go flying across the room, crash into a baseboard, dizzy with pain. Bruises bloom like flowers, lilac fading to green. Clumsy. Before it dives, the herring gull lets out a mewing squeal, a gah-gah-gah that the fish, swimming placidly in their salty ocean home, don’t hear.

Cowbirds are what’s known as a brood parasite. A female cowbird lays her eggs in the nests of other birds. Only about one percent of all bird species have others raise their babies.

My mother left when I was three, old enough that I should have memories. Maybe she’d vanished way before ever packing a bag. Fading into the wallpaper, hiding behind the sofa. I know how to do this, too. It’s a trick I’ve perfected over the years, along with imitating bird calls and peeling grapes with my teeth.

It is crucial to own a pair of good binoculars, preferably ones that are waterproof and fog-proof, with multicoated glass for impeccable image quality.  

I broke my binoculars once. Dropped them on the sidewalk. Hid the smashed remains in a plastic bag stuffed at the bottom of the trash. He found it. Don’t ask me how. He could smell  trouble. I waited in my room for what was surely coming, waiting, waiting, until I noticed the poorly wrapped shoebox on the kitchen table. A used pair, nearly as good as the other. The next day, I forgot to empty the litterbox and his knuckles burrowed into the small of my back.    

Keep a “Life List” of all the birds you’ve seen. You may want to add comments about where you discovered them and what distinctive features you noticed.

His includes species I haven’t encountered, though as far as I know, he never went birding without me. Each one has a small x next to it. As they lowered the coffin into the hole, I thought of the time we spotted a palm warbler hiding in an elm tree behind our house. Dash of yellow, tail beating the air like a heart. Look, he said, touching my hand carefully. He taught me to find wonder in a crooked branch, that flutter of surprise, the audacity of flight.    

Beth Sherman received an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her work has appeared in Portland Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Sandy River Review, Fictive Dream and elsewhere. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and has written five mystery novels. @bsherm36