May is for the Birds*

* I was curious about the phrase, “for the birds,” so I looked it up and found a very useful post: Meaning and Origin of the American Phrase, “Strictly” for the birds. Apparently it was originally used in the US military as something meaningless, ridiculous, useless, or foolish, and it was much cruder–‘that’s shit for the birds”–a reference to the habit of some birds the soldiers encountered of picking the seeds out of cow dung and eating them. The phrase hit its peak of popularity in the US in the 1960s. Now it’s rarely used, or when used, is usually meant to be funny or clever as a title for something actually about birds.

Unlike March (Emily Dickinson) or April (Mary Oliver), which focused on an individual poet, May was about a theme: birds. I have focused on birds before, memorizing a series of bird poems last summer, and creating a “deck do-nothing” exercise in February, but this was my first in-depth, month-long investigation into:

  • bird poems
  • birdsong and mnemonic devices for recognizing them
  • songs with birds in them
  • birding by ear
  • the “Warbler’s Wave” in mid to late May
  • the singularity of seeing a bird vs. the multiplicity of hearing birds
  • bird (as) metaphor
  • bird physiology
  • bird names, the racists who did the naming, and the activists/poets/ornithologists working to change the names
  • ways of being with a bird that don’t involve staring or naming or identifying or knowing
  • life lists and what birds “count” on them
  • birds as predators and parasites
  • bird nests
  • bird watching jargon
  • birdwatchers and bird-pointer-outers
  • bird navigation and quantum mechanics
  • birds that fly high, birds that dive deep, birds that hardly ever stop flying, birds that can’t fly at all
  • the “essence” of a bird
  • bird vision
  • the Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds” and the valley of bewilderment
  • birds who are wronged in poems and the metaphors inspired by them (the albatross/”The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

I started the month with ambitions of learning several more birds by ear; I managed to learn one or two. I ended the month by hoping to memorize a big chunk of the 4 part epic poem about the beautiful sea bird, the albatross: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I managed to memorize two sections or 137 lines.

new (to me) birds identified by ear: the red-breasted nuthatch, yellow-rumped warbler

a bird to look out for in late summer: redstars (“in late summer, redstarts visit plants with small berries and fruits, such as serviceberry “)

a bird I saw close-up several times: the black and white and tiny downy woodpecker

the best first sentence of a poem: from The Heron/ Ted Kooser

Maybe twenty yards out from the shoreline
a great blue heron waiting, motionless,
upon a post that seemed to have no purpose
other than to stand there stained with rings
of history as the old lake, breathing sunlight,
rose and fell.

Poems Gathered

some useful bird facts

  • Crows “caw”, ravens “cronk.” Crows flap awkwardly, ravens skim gracefully.
  • The three little birds in Bob Marley’s song, “Don’t Worry,” might be a reference to three canaries that greeted him most mornings, or his three back-up singers.
  • Some scientists believe that birds navigate by seeing (albeit in brief flashes) the magnetic field when light hits light-sensitive proteins (cryptochromes) found in their retinas.
  • The albatross has the largest wing span of birds: 11-12 feet.
  • An oven bird is called an oven bird because its nest looks like an old-fashioned oven with one big round hole for an entrance. A cowbird is called a cowbird because it follows cows (or buffalos) and eats the bugs that fly up in their wake. Cowbirds seem like terrible birds; the mother drops her eggs in the nest of another type of bird to be looked after and when the cowbird eggs hatch, they take all of the food from their foster mother. Sometimes they push other bird babies out of the nest or smother them.
  • “Water, water, everywhere/nor any drop to drink” (but not a drip to drink) comes from Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” first written in 1797, then heavily revised in 1817.

some useful bird links

note, added 1 nov 2023: I found a fascinating (and exciting) article about how the American Ornithological Society is renaming a huge amount (6-7% of US and Canadian species) of birds in order to move away from birds named after (racist) humans. Very cool! These American Birds and dozens more will be renamed, to remove human monikers

Some Bird Exercises and Activities

  • Find a poem about a bird and read it closely. Pick out all of the bird names and bird related words that you don’t know and look them up on Listen to their songs and calls, read about their quirky habits and how and if they migrate. Watch a video of them flying or feeding or singing. Delight (and/or annoy) others with all of the fascinating facts you have learned.
  • When out running or walking by the gorge, listen to the “Look!” you are offered by another kind walker wanting to point out a soaring eagle or a drumming downy woodpecker. Later, offer your own “Look!” to someone else.
  • Memorize part or all of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Endure strange looks and questions like, “Why would you want to do that?” Recite it to someone, anyone, who is willing to listen. Bonus: Later, listen to Iron Maiden’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and marvel at how glad you are to be the sort of person who would find memorizing this poem, and unexpectedly encountering Iron Maiden’s 13 minute interpretation of it, fun.

update, 19 feb 2024: Just discovered this great podcast episode about birding while blind:

The Pulse