Teri Orr: For the birds…
For the record — I was late to the whole “bird lovers” world. Birds scared my mother — pre-Hitchcock’s masterpiece — I don’t remember her specific reason. She never found birds sweet or charming or even interesting that I recall. I was raised by her — a single mom. For the second half of my childhood — after my older had sister married exactly when she turned 18 and I was 9 — I was pretty much an only lonely child. I chased gulls at the beach like all kids do and I sighed over jewel-toned birds in cages. I didn’t yet understand why the caged bird sings — that would come decades later from poet Maya Angelou and my own life.
When I lived at Tahoe during the ’70s in my 20s there were eagles and mountain bluebirds and some lake birds I had no names for. I had babies and a business and a giant St. Bernard. I had no time for birds.
When I moved to Park City at the end of the ’70s I paid the birds little to no attention — except when one of the cats dragged one as an offering to the porch.
After the kids left for college and the dog (at age 22) and the cats (ages 19 and 17) eventually died — I hung a bird feeder — at someone’s suggestion. They said this was great area to see so many birds on their flight pattern. I probably bought black oil sunflower seed and hung the feeder off the porch eave. I just remember that feeder and the spilled seed on the lawn started so many mornings. Naughty, naughty magpies.
Years later on a walkabout in the Seattle Art Museum — one rainy day — I wandered through an exhibit about the Plains Indians and what they revered. And what I saw painted on the deer skins — were these birds — these large black and white birds they considered powerful magic or good spirits or at least goodwill (for the hunting). And it knocked me sideways to discover they were the same damn magpies I shooed away from my porch almost daily. The Cheyenne, Piute, Blackfoot, all these powerful tribes found great spiritual power in the imagery of — the bleeping magpie. And like so many times in my life (either too many or not yet enough) it was like a whack on the side of the head. Is it possible I had the black and white bird hating all wrong?
I came home from that trip — as I always did when I spent time in the Pacific Northwest — changed. I decided I needed to make peace with the ’Pies.
I reminded myself when they were squawking at dawn and dust they were powerful messengers. They were, in fact, smart when I paid attention and are thought to be one of the most intellectual of all birds. I remember once waking at dawn to a great crying of magpies and I looked out my upstairs bedroom window down to the corner of my yard to see whatever could be the cause for such noise. It was a ceremony I bore witness to. There was a dead magpie in my wooden deck chair. I suspect it had hit the window and fallen there — but of course I have no earthly idea. What I saw was maybe 20 magpies perched on the backs of two chairs and branches of the tree above and on the tiny wooden table there. In a certain kind of old school church setting you might have called it — singing the spirit over. I have no idea what that was all about and I have never seen it since but I thought of the exhibit in Seattle and knew there was some kind of otherworldly event happening and I just best be grateful.
I still have issues with the ‘Pies of course. They throw seed around the yard and scare away smaller birds and they steal things all the time and leave things in new places. Like pretty small stones, and beads from a basket and woven things they picked at from a pillow on a porch seat. Clever naughty thieves.
This summer robins and doves and sparrows and red-winged blackbirds and yellow birds that look like someone opened a canary cage have all come to visit. Some days in the corner of my backyard away from humans and near a few bird feeders when I read — if I am still — a bird has been known to land on my shoulder. It is startling every time and also somehow calming.
“You have so many birds in your yard!” a stranger/passerby said one day — in this COVID time of new walkers in my hood. I never know what to say back. It’s not like I had too many children. Or I have 27 cats and a gang of dogs. I have no dogs or cats anymore, nor a posse of toddlers in the yard. I have trees for birds to nest in and rest in. I feed the birds in appreciation of their flybys and songs. So I nod, “yes, yes, some days I do have lots of birds in my yard. I am blessed that way.”
I know this — I have never in all the years I have lived here spent so much time in my yard. Or so much money on bird seed. It has become a kind of therapy I discovered by accident. There are no screens involved or electronics of any kind. I don’t blast music from speakers or put buds in my ears to distract me from the music that is being made around me. After 40 years in this house I have never been more at home. Which is a gift in this suspended time of times when a random Tuesday can also feel like a Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder and director emeritus of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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