The Healing Power of Birds

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(scrub jay on the railing outside my north window)

 

I recently arrived in Abiquiu, New Mexico after an absence of several months. That first morning I was struck by the light that gilded the mountain in gold at sunrise as I hung up my bird feeders, scattered corn on the ground, and put out a dish of water.

 

The first thing I do when I move to a new dwelling is to call in the birds. There is something about being surrounded by these winged ones that binds me to a particular place especially during difficult transitions.

 

Within minutes I was delighted to make the acquaintance of a number of raucous scrub jays who hungrily swallowed sunflower seed while Lily b, my collared dove, peered at them curiously from his hanging basket indoors. We have east, west, and north windows that surround us on three sides that makes viewing our new avian friends a pleasure. Our next visitors were mountain chickadees and a curved bill thrasher.

 

A week later I count twenty – seven species of birds! Among them were ravens, hawks, an eagle, towhees, magpies, curved billed thrashers, dark eyed juncos, flickers, robins, stellar jays, finches, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, white winged doves, a flock of collared doves, and one single collared dove that comes alone. The smallest birds greet us at dawn getting a chance to eat before the larger birds arrive. The woodpeckers know just where to find the fat that I have attached to the rough hewn trunks of the Russian olives. The Great Horned owl awakened me one night at 3 AM serenading me with his low resonant hooting. Every morning I hear the sound of geese as they fly by at dawn and the eerie calls of the flocks of sand – hill cranes remind me that bird migration is underway. Is it any wonder I have named our little refuge the “bird room?”

 

My dogs, birds, and I are surrounded by scrub that lets in the stars at night. With a northern exposure I look for the Great Bear rising over the horizon thinking about my black bear yearling raking in bedding and entering his den to sleep in peace. Last night I saw a falling star not long after sunset.

 

I can’t decide if mornings or evenings are my favorite times of the day with glorious orange sunrises and pale yellow sunsets tinged with scarlet ribbons that can be witnessed from both east or west from this one small room.

 

During the day the sky is that deep New Mexican mountain blue, and even though it is almost December the sun still has warmth…

 

The river is running high and every day I go down to let the water move through me, helping me to return to this abandoned body after weeks of prolonged stress.

 

Water is Life. Not only are we made of water but for some, like me, water acts as a natural healing force. I am irritated with my body willing her respond to my command to relax her hyper-vigilance, even when she is indicating to me that she isn’t ready. I am distressed by this split I have created in myself with my impatience. I ask the river to begin to flow through me as I watch the birds soaring over my head.

 

I remember the words of Emily Dickinson:

 

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…I’ve heard it in the chilliest land, and on the strangest sea.”

 

Hope is the bird that lives in me.

Red Willow River

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Winding through the valley the river tells ancient stories about the peaceful people who lived along her red willow banks, long ago… I can almost see the women who gathered slender branches and made spiral baskets as the horned owl stood watch from the heavily ridged bark of the cottonwood trunk, perching so close to her center that his presence went almost unnoticed.

Softly rounded clay pots were fashioned from the clay in these waters by these same women whose handprints also remain on the adobe walls they plastered in the pueblo just across the river. Distinctive pots stored precious corn, squash, and bean seeds dried and ready for spring planting. Preparations were under way by the men who would still be practicing for the last of the winter hunting dances. Each animal acknowledged as a relative through the footsteps of each dancer – turtle, deer, antelope, and buffalo – each song a prayer of gratitude for the animal who sacrificed itself so the people could have meat to nourish their bodies, to keep them strong. Soon the men would begin clearing the ditches of winters’ debris. Each spring snow melt from the mountains floods the river to overflowing and these ditches will irrigate gardens and orchards, germinating new seeds.

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The Tewa once pecked pictures of the serpentine river on high desert stones and named him Avanyu. The serpent flicked tongues of lightening, spit thunderous roars and called down the rains with the holy people who came down from the mountains to help the people grow their precious crops. In the spring the Bow and Arrow dance was performed in his honor, and this tradition continues in Nambe today.

Water is life and the Pueblo people have not forgotten the importance of this essential element to all those who inhabit her desert, especially in the spring. Knowing that the elements of water, fire, earth and air continue to be honored by others as well as by myself offers me hope that the Gift that is Life will not succumb to the now catastrophic death-seeking human climate…

At dawn the sun bleeds red roses into the river and overhead the geese are climbing into a blushing sky; they too follow the curves of the deep blue green river… Mallards skim the surface of her waters, and a golden eagle soars out of an old cottonwood tree nearby.

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When I walk the little path I am lining with stones broken pottery shards appear out of red earth at my feet. A bevy of birds skitter through wiry thickets, perching in bushes and small trees waiting for me to break the ice and fill their water dishes. Nuthatches, chickadees, towhees, juncos, finches, sparrows, the magpie – In the brief time I’ve been here I count sixteen new species, not including water – fowl. Sandhill cranes spread the word that spring is coming with their haunting songs joining the rest of the aerial crowd flowing with and flying along the river. In my mind I imagine that I can see with the eagle’s golden eye this wending stream, a path made of water, snaking her way to the sea.As I approach and open a rusty rose sculptured creaking gate some geese and ducks are resting on stones that form riffles and ribbons of quicksilver under a shimmering sun. Far away to the west the wind begins to blow… I am a woman in waiting. The rising waters of the coming season seem to be flowing through my body too.

Abiquiu 1

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We have been living here  in Guadalupe’s little round stone house for about two weeks making the acquaintance of many rabbits and hares, three kinds of hummingbirds (ruby, black chinned, rufous) and the canyon towhee, a rose colored house finch, flycatchers, and a multitude of gorgeous desert lizards – the stunning blue green collared lizard, a yellow and red striped fellow that I think is the chihuahuan whiptail, and my favorite, the sagebrush lizard who seems to like hanging around the house. These friendly little lizards like the stone ledges to  bask in the sun. The desert cottontails come in for seed in the early morning and evenings. Black tailed jackrabbits (hares) meet and greet one another, leap around the scrub, fragrant sage and rabbit brush at the edges of each day. They too feast on sunflower seeds. Yesterday a juniper titmouse called out to me from its tree in the wash. Juniper and pinion pines seem to dominate the landscape but there is one juniper or cedar (cypress family) that reminds me of the northern white cedars of Maine that I can’t identify. Wildflowers are abundant and the wild mounds of Datura with their violet tipped trumpets are sweetly fragrant in the early mornings and are humming with bees. I have huge clumps Datura everywhere outside my door and will sow seeds around Guadalupe’s house as soon as the thorny pods are dry and brown to usher in the coming of autumn. I also have diminutive clumps of sky blue blossoms with a yellow beak, bushy mounds of delicate yellow star-like flowers and masses of Russian sage.  I also discovered a barrel cactus under its nurse tree, a helpful Juniper. I dug this up and planted it in a pot. The washes are full of little mounds of magenta flowers. Tiny plump bushes of asters dot the landscape. Yesterday while watering my small juniper I saw an emerald green praying mantis amidst the thorny leaves and the broad winged katydids bring in the night with sounds so soothing they put one to sleep. Ravens squawk from the highest buttes. I have seen night – hawks soaring, scissor -like at dusk and heard the hooting of the great horned owl on the full moon. Huge puffed up cumulus clouds rise up in the afternoons; every day the desert folk, animals, plants and people pray that rain, carried by shark gray clouds and flashes of lightning will come to sooth the parched cracked earth. Abiquiu, like much of the rest of the country is suffering from drought. The mountain ranges and little red hills are astonishing in their beauty – peppered in subtle sagebrush grays and greens –  sunsets catch the sky on fire.

 

We have a community dog named Snoopy that belongs to this cluster of houses. Mine is set off from the others and has it’s own long winding road. This is probably a good thing because Snoopy has not been welcomed by one of my Chihuahuas, who, because of her behavior has been named the “Barracuda” by one of my closest neighbors! Wild dogs are a nuisance and bark at night while coyotes sing up the stars.

 

I have met two wonderful people who have helped me in so many ways already that I feel that I will be indebted to them forever! It is such a gift to have so much in common with these kind generous hearted folks. And for me, having people I depend upon for help finding my way by car has become necessity because of my severe directional dyslexia. I was told by someone who knows me and lives in Abiquiu that I would have no trouble negotiating the driving to get groceries and other necessities. That assessment was incorrect. I am so used to fending for myself that it is hard to depend so much on others for such basic help, but I have no choice. Thus, I feel doubly blessed by these neighbors and their offers of  assistance…*

*** these folks turned out NOT to be friends after all – they abruptly disappeared from my life – like coyotes in the canyon. I was tricked by their apparent generosity – but I was also desperate. In retrospect I dealt with a fair amount of trickery during these years but it was all part of an amazing experience.

 

What follows is a list of the birds that I have seen and I think I know by name:

mountain blue bird

pinon jay

mourning dove

raven

crow

turkey vulture

scrub jay

great horned owl

black chinned hummingbird

ruby throated hummingbird

black chinned hummingbird

flycatcher

nighthawk

canyon towhee

house finch

coopers hawk  (landed on Lily B’s outdoor cage terrorizing him)

juniper titmouse

 

August 19th

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Winter Birds

IMG_2068Every afternoon I sit down at my table, binoculars in hand to breathe in the peace of the twilight hours and to commune with the birds who are gathering for their evening meal. The mourning doves have already sailed into the open feeders that hang from a pole under the protection of the field pine overhead, scratching seed onto the ground with abandon. I draw in my breath sharply if a female cardinal dressed in an olive coat flies down to peck the seed below because her visits to the feeders are sparse. A few blue – jays may still be about although the heaviest concentration of jays occurs when I first put food out in the morning. Their raucous screams “here she comes” alert the neighborhood that food is on the way. Juncos are around all day long, feeding on the ground. The goldfinches are morning visitors that retire by mid afternoon. Swarms of them flit back and forth like bees from one feeder to the next during the morning. Purple finches also gravitate to the open feeders on the pole and use any of the three that are vacant usually during most of the day. Chickadees and nuthatches are out and about from dawn to dusk, delicately picking out one seed, flying away, and returning for another in a few seconds. Every time I think the robins have left another one appears. Fortunately I still have a few small crabapples left on my trees for robins and the two grouse that come and go. Another bird that has surprised me this year is the white throated sparrow. A whole bevy left in late November and four appeared here in January morning and have been with me ever since. The first day they arrived they were on the ground searching for seed until nightfall.Occasionally I have a few other sparrows visit for a day or two. When I am home I try to keep track of who is coming or going during the day and note the distinct feeding patterns of different species. There is one small feeder hanging from an apple tree that I have to fill twice a day because it is the chickadees’ favorite, although these little birds are democratic in their leanings and visit all feeders at some point. Hairy and downy woodpeckers are early risers and are always announcing their presence with a loud staccato like chirp as they land on the suet, or the open feeder. They have a tendency to avoid crowds and usually retire around three in the afternoon. But most fascinating is the way they climb down the pines to snack in the protected area where I scatter a small amount of seed on the ground for the cardinals (Small is the operative word here because ground feeding brings in the squirrels within minutes). Sometimes the pileated woodpecker who resembles a prehistoric raptor makes an appearance around mid -day landing on a crabapple out front where I hang suet but he rarely stays. He also announces his presence with an otherworldly laugh. The two kinds of nuthatches also climb down the pines to feast on the ground if they find food there but they use the open feeders too.

Every year I have tufted titmice. This year I have two pairs but I have never had a titmouse sing during the winter like one of these little males does. He has three songs, one of which he begins to sing early in the morning; it is composed of three delicate whistles. He also has a shorter version of the same theme that he sometimes uses during the day. Another variation less frequently heard, perhaps my favorite, is his descending double whistle. I have started to call to him whenever I am outside and if he is around he answers me with the three whistles call. When I thank him for the concert he always responds with another song! Most birds are notoriously quiet during the winter months and so I was delighted and mystified by this little fellow’s proclivity for singing and was surprised to discover that titmice do apparently sing during winter thaws. So far this winter the mild temperatures might be the reason this little fellow is so vocal. More interesting is that there are at least eight distinct calls that have been identified as variations on three basic themes. According to the literature the musical whistle I hear most of the day and the one this little bird sings to me is considered to be a morning call. Not so here. This little fellow has been singing that particular song all day throughout the month of December and into January. With colder temperatures and snow on the way, I wonder if he will continue to serenade me? The soft gray blue coat, tufted cap and brilliant coal black eyes of this small bird is so appealing as he flits back and forth to the feeders, rustles through leaves in search of insects, or hangs upside down on twigs but it is his songs that so endear him to me. I rarely see him or his extended family after mid-afternoon.

The birds that draw me into late afternoon communion are the cardinals. Everyone I suppose has a favorite bird and the cardinal is mine. For a while last summer the Indigo Bunting captured my heart but the cardinals eventually won out. I have reached the conclusion that there is something about these birds that embodies the spirit of Nature as divine. They are my wild “Spirit Birds.” Somewhat reclusive by nature the cardinals are not birds that flit back and forth to feeders all day long. They come only at certain times and are very particular about where they eat. Although somewhat sociable with their own kind, they dislike hoards of other birds and avoid feeding with them. I rarely see them at the open feeders on the pole except at dawn. Cardinals are ground feeders that prefer the protection of trees; here they gather under the pines outside my kitchen window just before dusk during this darkest time of the year. I find myself scanning the pines for the first sight of my beloved “Red Bird” one male that has an ethereal bluish cast to his wings that is noticeable only when he is on the ground. The rest of the bird is fiery crimson. Once he makes his first appearance I feel palpable relief (A number of years ago I lost a male fledgling to a cat and a couple of adult male cardinals to unknown causes and apparently have never recovered from the losses). This is when I fall into a meditative state, hyper –alert but sinking into the comfort of my body as I move into another dimension. The shift is so subtle that I barely notice the transition until I realize that I have lost time, and now it is too dark to see the birds! In the interim I have been watching my Redbird and his ladies fly in to eat their favorite sunflower seeds, disappearing, and returning again and again until dark. Because this has been an unusually mild fall and winter so far I will be curious to see what happens… Soon the world will turn white again, and I am perched like one of my birds at the edge of this turning because although the sun is journeying northward, the coldest winter days are upon us…