My Life in Birds

Amy Collini


1. Fox sparrow

We suffer a bitter and costly first winter in the new house. It costs $600 to fill the propane tank that heats our home; because we can’t afford it any other way, we have the company fill the tank half-full or even just a quarter full each time they come out. The snow is unceasing.

On days when it storms and I am unable to drive to work, I dump black oil sunflower seed on the snow-covered patch of concrete that serves as the back porch; then, I park myself next to the window to watch. By now there are feeders everywhere: a hopper, a tray feeder, a suet feeder, multiple tube feeders, even a squirrel feeder. When the snow keeps falling, I fling seed on the ground seven or eight times during the ashen daylight hours, and the birds descend in huge mixed flocks, fifty or sixty at a time. One afternoon I notice a ruddy bird with a dramatically-striped breast scratching for seed in the snow. I’ve never seen this one before, and my brand-new Sibley Guide to Birds tells me he is a fox sparrow.

Even within the mixed flock, the fox sparrow stands alone. He feeds under the protection of the community—gathering in large groups affords extra defense from predators, because there are more eyes to watch for them—but he doesn’t belong to the house sparrows, the white-crowned sparrows, the dark-eyed juncos. He’s here because desperation has sent him to my yard for sustenance.

I call to my husband to show him the fox sparrow, just as I do any time I see a new and unusual bird, but his interest is perfunctory at best. He does not share my curiosity or amusement. Mostly he watches long hours of television in the living room while I sit in the breezeway with a blanket and a cup of tea, looking out on our three acres alone.

We, too, are together but alone.


2. Brown-headed cowbird

Large, noisy flocks of starlings often swoop into our front yard. I begin to notice that among the hundreds of starlings, there are always a handful of small, sleek blackbirds with chocolate-brown heads.

I learn that the brown-headed cowbird is a brood parasite; the female never builds her own nest. Instead, she scouts for nests made by other species and lays her eggs in theirs. Often, she rolls out an egg laid by the host mother. She repeats this in six to eight different nests over a period of as many days. If a host mother retaliates by building a new nest on top of the intruder’s egg, the cowbird will continue to return and lay an egg, sometimes resulting in six or seven nests stacked on top of one another. If a human or host mother removes the cowbird’s egg, the female cowbird will often return and ransack the nest in apparent retaliation, earning her the nickname “mafia bird.” If the cowbird’s egg remains in the nest, the host mother’s chicks frequently die after hatching because they can’t compete with the loud demands for food made by the larger cowbird chick.

The cowbird has devastated the populations of many other species, and some states have even initiated cowbird control programs to prevent the total elimination of species at risk.

In years past, cowbirds traveled with buffalo herds, eating the grain from their dung; their reproductive strategy evolved due to their itinerant lifestyle. Looking out my breezeway window, I recoil when I see a tiny chipping sparrow, no bigger than the palm of my hand, feeding an enormous, begging adolescent cowbird. I want to admire the cowbird’s resourcefulness and her ability to adapt, even as I find myself uninterested in having children, because she’s only doing what she must. But the devastation she wreaks on other species is too hard to overlook.

My husband and I don’t have children, not for the eleven years we are married. I don’t want them, and my decision solidifies as the years pass. When my husband’s brother and his wife announce during dinner at our house that they are pregnant, the entire evening devolves into a discussion of their imminent parental status. There’s no room for anything else. I retreat to the kitchen for a hefty swallow of chardonnay straight from the bottle. I am in turmoil: jealous, angry and confused, affronted by their glee. Within weeks, the spotlight of my in-laws’ attention, previously distributed in an evenhanded fashion among their children and spouses, orients itself on my brother- and sister-in-law. Everyone becomes obsessed with the nursery and the shower and baby names; I feel forgotten, filled with resentment. As the due date nears, my brother-in-law begins sending out cervix dilation updates to the entire extended family via email. “Still only 1 cm!” they read, week after week. I quit opening them.

When the child is born, I find I can’t go anywhere near him. I am dumbfounded by everyone’s singular focus on the baby at Thanksgiving, by their ability to stare for hours at this little blob of humanity, giggling at his farts. Because I have chosen not to have children, I am relegated to the sidelines: I am an observer, a nobody. In retaliation, I refuse to pay homage to the little prince, and in the years my husband and I remain married (two? three? I can no longer remember), I never once hold the child or even speak to him.


3. Turkey vulture

When I see them circling above my street, black and slow and steady, I assume they are hawks. Later I will learn that most people make this mistake. I see them within weeks of moving into the new house, and continue to see them, year after year, always repeating their lazy circles, going nowhere. Even after I learn what they are and tell him they’re not hawks, my husband continues to ask, “Are they hawks?” every time I point at them from the car window. Eventually I don’t say anything.

When I look them up in my Sibley guide, I discover they are turkey vultures, eaters of carrion, one of only two birds (the other is the California condor) that hunt by scent.

They are attracted in large numbers to the stench of something dead.


4. Carolina chickadee

I get divorced. I am the one who leaves, who always knew it would be me making the inevitable decision. I am the one who chooses what we were always migrating toward, even from the moment he told me he loved me two weeks after our first date, when I sat at that picnic bench in the chilly park, feeling awkward and unable to return the sentiment.

I move to a half-double in an old neighborhood near downtown, and after a few months I set up the birdfeeders in the maple in my tiny front yard. I sit on my wicker loveseat and read or drink tea while bundled in my fuzzy blue bathrobe, waiting for the birds to come. One spring afternoon, I notice a woman across the street sitting on a faded quilt in her own patch of front yard, her infant sitting next to her. The baby’s pale blond hair and chubby pink thighs glow in the milky sunlight. I watch the two as they talk and look at one another, as she feeds him some little snack, and I am overcome by a pang of longing from somewhere deep inside. What must it feel like to be that intricately intertwined with a human being of your own creation? With anyone at all?

By now I am dating someone, falling for him, and I begin to wonder if I could expand into an entirely new person with him. These thoughts are soft and downy, like a nestling’s new feathers, and I am afraid to look at them head-on for fear they might be carried away by even the gentlest breeze. I am afraid to hope.

The following spring, when I am deeply in love with the same man and we have already had many tentative conversations about having a family, we sit on my porch as a chickadee couple brings their brood to my feeders. The four fledglings line up on the branches, flapping their wings and trilling out their begging notes, and their parents pop shelled seeds into their open beaks. We watch and smile, both at them and at one another.

Other days, I call him to the window to see the big red-bellied woodpecker or the feisty little Carolina wren who scolds me from her branch. He always comes. I sometimes find him peeking out the window, and he will ask, “What kind of bird is that?”

It never occurred to me until now that my deadened first marriage could have been the cause of my militant anti-child credo.

It feels like an awakening.


5. House finch

The house finch is a ubiquitous feeder bird, brown except for the red cap the male wears, and because they visit throughout the day, they are reliable entertainment. On one summer morning, my three-year-old son sits on my lap at the kitchen window and we watch the feeders together. The finches chirp and squabble and carry on, and when one female chases another away from her preferred spot, my son dissolves into melodic laughter, saying, “She’s pecking her tail! She’s pecking her tail!” He runs around the house repeating this for at least three days, always laughing. I teach him the names of all our regular visitors: downy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, house sparrow, northern cardinal.




Amy Collini‘s work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Soundings Review, Literary Mama, Mulberry Fork Review, The Evening Street Review and others. She lives with her family in central Ohio.



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