I don’t like birds. It’s not some profound thing- on some days, I’m not even sure that it’s a true thing. I think the birds and I have an understanding. We keep our distance.
My grandmother used to feed them. She kept sacks of bird feed in her shed big enough that I often fantasized about crawling inside and making myself a shelter out of seeds. Every couple of days she’d overfill the feeders, dump handfuls of seed onto the concrete of the raised well pump, and mix up sugar water for the hummingbirds. Then she’d sit out on the porch and watch as they all flew in. The bluejays bullied the cardinals that bullied the starlings. My favorites were the red-winged blackbirds that perched on the highest branches of the trees and waited for the smaller, less-patient birds to evacuate. On days when my grandmother would put out dinner scraps for the farm cats at the same time as she fed the birds, I’d worry. Didn’t she know what cats did? And at night when I heard the coyotes bark but didn’t hear the mewl of the cats, I’d worry. Didn’t she know what coyotes did?
The first time I found a feline body picked clean by wild dogs, it was lying in the strip of grass between the windbreak and the cornfield. The corpse belonged to my cat, Cinnamon. I knew it was her because puffs of her gold-dust-flecked hair still clung to the weeds near her bones.
I blamed the birds. Birds bring cats bring coyotes bring death.
On late summer afternoons in southern Illinois, anywhere you sit, when you look up you’ll see birds. Some of them travel in clouds. Others fly circles around their meals. Others fly Vs as they start to leave for the season. They fly the same Vs when they come back. I, too, learned to fly circles, how to return, briefly but consistently, making pilgrimages in April and October.
I hate that I go back, but I always do. If I don’t let my body go, then my mind will go without me, and suddenly I am eleven years old, climbing a ladder to check for eggs in the nest built in the garage; I am twelve, dumping corn from my t-shirt apron and getting rushed by chickens; I am thirteen sitting alone on the bleachers at the football field, watching the mourning doves peck at the paintlines; I am fourteen digging my fingers underneath the bark of the log I’m perched on as water fowl bathe in the creek flowing beneath my feet. One weekend I took a pocketful of quarters to the nature reserve to try to make friends of the corvids. Should’ve known then that you can’t buy friends, but I’d never tried before.
When I went to high school in what felt to me like a city, I marveled at the lack of birds. Not once did I look out the window to see the schoolyard populated by a flock. Not once was I joined by an avian companion when I crawled out the library window and onto the balcony when no one was looking.
Birds are place loyal. They don’t mind if the familiar things have moved on, if new things have taken their place, if there has been a turnover of people. They come back, and so will I. Somehow these birds, even the ones I’ve never met, know too much of my story. They chatter, they gossip, word spreads. Birds remind me of everything I have tried so hard to forget and of all of the things I’ve loved and buried. After a funeral once, I threw a book across the parking lot at a cardinal because the book was sad and I didn’t know how to process death, even after so much practice, and the bird was mocking me. They all remember that.
Every spring I attend confession, tell the same feathers everything that would ruffle them if they weren’t already ruffled, hear the same rebuke from the same beaks, repeat the same song of the same forgiveness that I learned in younger, quieter moments. I go through the elements of the sacrament and wait for absolution.
I promise that there will be more young, quiet moments.
I praise the morning when it comes.
But I do not feed the birds.
The birds do not feed me.