Elegy for a cedar waxwing/Ode to a robin

(Inspired by reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.)

This morning an army of birds invaded our yard, a horde of robins, a flock, a grouping. What is the word for a swarm of robins? I like to imagine it’s a christopher. (Groan.)

The holly bushes, laden with small red berries, became a smorgasbord, a buffet, all they could eat, seconds and thirds, please please please. They picked it clean, left it empty.

The ground, the front yard, the back yard, littered with robins. Chests, reddish orange all, but backs light brown so that against the dry winter grass and dirt, they blend in, until you focus your eyes, catch the small, jumpy movements, the pecking of the soil, the threatening of each other.

Along with the robins, the usual feathered visitors showed, too: the wrens, the titmice, the bluejays, the cardinals. Even the pileated woodpecker, resplendent with his bright red head, made an appearance. I watched him, large like something descended from dinosaurs, which I guess he is, nervously testing the flesh of the live oaks, the bark of the laurel oaks, for decay, for deadness that would signal to him a meal, a delicacy. At last, he found it with a large chunk of wood, still on the ground from months ago, after the hurricane toppled and uprooted an old tree, long dead.

The windows today, with an overcast sky, touches of blue peeking through fluffy cloud cover, have proven irresistible to the birds. Three hits and one death, instant.

A cedar waxwing lay on the front porch, blood coming from his mouth, still, gone, from flying so vigorously at his own reflection, thinking it a threat, another male bird. (At least, this is what I tell myself to ward off those creeping memories of superstition. What’s it mean when a bird dies by flying into your window? I don’t want to know, but I can’t imagine it’s the good luck supposedly portended by a dropping on your favorite shirt, on your freshly washed hair.)

His little body, the cedar waxwing, was so lovely, feathers gray and brown with a splash of yellow at the tip of his tail. His head, black with white, only the red of the blood seeming out of place. He was a young one, I believe.

Another of the window chargers flew off right away after his hit, while the third, a robin, stayed for several minutes on the back deck, sitting on the ground underneath his point of impact. I watched from inside, observing his quick shallow breathing, his body turned away from my own, his head still.

How to help a robin? I felt haunted even with everything else going on in the world, the great injustices, the small, and here was this one creature I couldn’t do anything about. Was he in pain? Was he suffering? Surely — you should have heard the blast when he hit the glass.

I watched, in pity, in uselessness, and then I saw his head turn. First left, then right, then back again. He hopped a little, shook out his wings. Oh, have I ever felt so hopeful? A few more tests of the neck and he moved to the edge of the deck, waited a beat, the perfect rest, and was gone. He flew, his wings worked just fine, and landed on a tree across the yard.

I never knew I could cheer for something as seemingly mundane as a bird taking flight. But here I am. And there he goes.

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