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A Childhood with Birds

I hold the feather in my hand, slowly rubbing my fingers along the edge. It is soft, so delicate against my skin I can hardly feel it, only a slight tickle, a whisper on my skin. This soft quality gives the allusion of fragility and perhaps in a sense that is true. A feather is a paradox having the appearance of fragility, yet strong enough to slice through the air, surviving the tests of time, human thoughtlessness and greed. The feather is also stiff, a strength which allows the bird to drift on the wind.  Just the various purposes of a feather make it a wonder. The brilliant colors and patterns are used to attract mates. Feathers in some birds act as camouflage, providing protection from predators by blending into their surroundings. They provide protection from the cold by trapping air that acts as insulation. Water-repellent body feathers allow some birds to be swimmers.

Even as an adult, I am exhilarated when I find a feather along my path, whether it belongs to a hawk, turkey, blue jay or pigeon. There is something about a feather, I am not quite sure what it is that excites me so. Perhaps it is because holding a feather is like holding a bird since it is a part of one. Feathers become faded and worn, brittle with wear. Birds molt, new feathers grow from follicles in the skin pushing out the old feathers which are discarded. Happily, I come along one of these feathers, pick it up and connect with the birds I so often observe.

Birds were a part of my childhood. I listened to their calls, enjoyed the music they made. I loved watching them twitter, dance with each other in the air, a mating ritual. I was intrigued by small birds scaring away a large hawk or eagle. I glimpsed an eastern screech owl near our old barn. I loved to watch birds at the feeder, my younger brother, Jonathan, and I particularly enjoyed watching chickadees and listening to them call out their name. I couldn’t wait for the first day in late spring or early summer, that was finally warm enough to open a window and hear all the various bird songs. I enjoyed observing red-tailed hawks perched on wooden fence posts and power lines. I followed turkeys in the pasture. I avoided swooping barn swallows.  Hummingbirds moving so fast they were hard to see, but so interesting to watch as they landed on flowers and drank the nectar. I cradled an injured bird in my hand, sad I could do nothing to help it. A chick’s unbelievably soft, yellow feathers, peeping loudly filled my tiny hands. I was intrigued by the cute chicks filling our porch, watching them nibble at their food. A few times a hen would bite my hand as I reached under her for a warm egg. Ducklings played in water we provided them, joyously quacking. I loved holding the ducklings, feeling their rubbery feet on my hand.

I still enjoy watching birds at the feeder now: juncos, sparrows, nuthatches, blue jays, chickadees, cardinals, downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers. A couple times a year, I hear the austere hoot of a great horned howl. Several times in early October, bizarre screeches of an eastern screech owl drift through the night into my window. I admire the beauty of the birds, their industriousness, cleverness, and desire to survive.

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