A customer once told me that flamingoes weren’t real birds. This was quite a number of years ago and I was working at a garden center in Calgary. A middle aged woman wearing way too much make-up came over and asked me if we sold lawn flamingoes. I said that we did not. She asked if I knew where she could buy some. I was pretty sure they hadn’t been trendy or cool for at least 25 years so I didn’t know where they might be sold. (I didn’t say that to her though.) I suggested maybe some of the big box stores, because I was unable to imagine any other location they might be found.

“I hope I find some!” she announced with unnecessary enthusiasm. “I want them with some garden gnomes and my little lamb planters!” Since plastic lawn flamingoes, garden gnomes, and plastic lamb planters are all three things I genuinely can’t stand, I thought a friend of mine must have put her up to this- surely no rational person actually liked and tried to acquire these hideous items! I can’t remember what I said exactly, but somehow we began to have a conversation (because I was trying to figure out if she were serious or having a go at me) and somehow, I clued in that she was genuinely in search of these monstrosities. I made a joke about how if she were looking for REAL flamingoes, that would be a cool thing to have in your yard! So that’s when she said…(*are you ready for this?)…that’s when she said “what do you mean, REAL flamingoes?” I paused.

I said “Real life flamingoes. You know…like…the tropical bird?” She blinked at me. I began to hear a rising crescendo of violins. “I don’t understand”, she said. I said it again, hoping she had misunderstood. “REAL flamingoes…alive. Living. Non-plastic. Tall pink wading birds…” She sort of laughed. A funny sound came out of her mouth. “Flamingoes aren’t real”, she said, like I was some sort of simpleton. “They’re made up. Like unicorns.” I gave her a look that I usually reserve for math equations that don’t make sense to me. “Did you think they were really REAL?” she asked very condescendingly. She was looking at me like I had just said I had taken a sasquatch for a lover. “Flamingoes are an actual bird”, I said slowly and carefully. “There are half a dozen species. They live in South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. They have spectacular mating dances. Their food affects their colouring. They’re one of the most famous and recognizable birds in the world.” I said this with the dismissive, icy tone that I most often use for flat-earthers and climate change deniers. I wasn’t about to let Mabel Mascara here with her plastic friggin gnomes and ineffective haircut tell me that flamingoes were imaginary. I was legitimately annoyed at her ignorance. She laughed at me like I was the one who was crazy. She started to say something and I interrupted her. “THEY ARE A REAL BIRD” I said much too loudly. “YOU NEED TO GO TO A LIBRARY OR GET A NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SUBSCRIPTION. PREFERABLY BOTH.” She turned around and started to walk away. She turned back, and said “they aren’t real. They just aren’t.” I said I would happily put her in touch with the Cornell bird laboratory and she would look quite the fool. She walked away in a huff. I don’t know what ever became of her, but I found myself imagining her at the San Diego Zoo surrounded by flamingoes and saying to people “They’re animatronic, you know. They aren’t real.”

I’m still the same person I was. The world has changed, but I haven’t. I’m still out looking for answers and I’m still frustrated by humanity and their general disregard for the planet. I’m out there with the sparrows everyday and they don’t have any of the answers, either. Grandpa used to tell me “his eye is on the sparrow…” and whether that’s true or not isn’t for me to say.

I don’t have any courage left. I don’t have any plan B. I’m out here with the sparrows inquiring about their lives and I think that’s as good a thing to do with my time as anything anyone else is doing. Most people can recognize a house sparrow but the truth is they don’t really belong here. They were brought to North America in the 1850’s and succeeded wildly; muscling out native species and building up to three nests a year and with a highly adaptable diet it’s no surprise they managed as well as they have. They stay here for winter and I suppose I should admire their hardiness. Sometimes I do.

The native sparrows are all migratory, and it took me a long time to learn their names, and learn their songs, and learn to tell them apart. I have had good teachers though. I still have so much to learn about them. I go out every day, and often with people who know far more about birds than I do. The aptly named song sparrow finds a perch and just lets loose as though he were Frank Sinatra. He doesn’t even know how talented he is. The grasshopper sparrow is quite the opposite; an unassuming little grassland bird whose persistent, insect-like buzz is the source of his common name. I used to hear him in the coulees in Lethbridge and I always wanted to tell him I thought he was charming. Harris’s sparrow is quite large, for a sparrow anyway. I have seen two this week. They have very handsome black faces and call to each other with long whistles like a tea kettle. Chipping sparrows are singing merrily and white crowned sparrows are making their way through on their migration and the clay-coloured sparrows are announcing themselves with calls that remind me of Australia’s cicadas. Most of the sparrows are brown, and the males are coloured differently than the females, and they are small and fast and they all like different habitats and eat different things and they remind me that the world is actually very interesting and diverse. If I just stop and pay close attention, I can see how they are all different and all in their own way rather wonderful. I want to dress like the sparrows. I love their rusty and earth coloured apparel and I would be happy to wear any combination of those rich, cinnamon-browns. The fox sparrows are a beautiful reddish brown with grey markings and the Baird’s sparrow is a pale, sandy colour marked with dark brown and the swamp sparrow dresses in the same shade of brown as tree bark with a jaunty red-brown hat.

When I am out there with the sparrows, I can forget what is happening in the world and I can forget that my livelihood is being held hostage and I can forget how annoyed and frustrated and upset I actually am. Grandpa also used to tell me you are worth more than many sparrows…and there are just so many of them, I wonder if that could possibly even be true.

I like bird nests. They are all so different and so interesting and even within a species, no two nests are ever the same! There is the incredible mud creation of the barn swallows and the great raft of sticks and twigs built by the crows and there is the exquisite cup built by the goldfinches. All the birds build different nests! Some really don’t even bother building at all; the killdeer and the horned lark scrape a shallow depression in the gravel and some like the chickadees prefer to nest in dark cavities in the side of an old, dead tree. It always amazes me that using mud and grass and twigs, birds are able to construct something strong enough and durable enough to hold something as fragile and breakable as an egg. Perhaps the most daring of these is the nest of the oriole.

Orioles build the most impossible and unlikely of nests. It is a deep pouch built high in the canopy and it actually sways in the breeze. It is basically a hammock. I have no idea how they achieve this. Using beaks and branches and a great deal of ingenuity, the orioles are able to ensure that another generation of orioles arrives in the world. It’s one of those smallish miracles that nobody ever really seems to comment on.

If you have large deciduous trees in your yard or your neighbourhood you’ve probably heard the song of the oriole. For such a beautiful and flashy bird, they are surprisingly shy. High up in the trees, the male oriole announces his presence with a series of complex and beautiful notes. You know he’s there, but he is usually impossible to find. If you are patient, you may be rewarded with a flash of brilliant pumpkin orange against black shadow. He is a lightning bolt of warm colour and music on a beautiful spring day. Sometimes the song is abruptly paused only to begin again from a new vantage point a moment later. The oriole goes about his day totally unaware that the nest that he hatched in seems to defy all the laws of gravity and physics. It is as though he thinks it is perfectly natural and even expected for him to be so lovely and talented.

If you happen upon an oriole’s nest, you may not even recognize it as such. You may see what you think is a scrap of debris and dried grass, caught in a branch gently rocking back and forth. If you were to examine it more closely, hidden inside you would find the female oriole carefully incubating her eggs. She is less flashy than he, but not less important. Imagine coming into the world as an oriole. On a cradle in the high canopy, warm and protected, the first sounds you hear are the songs that your father is singing over you. Baby orioles are guarded fiercely and fed and loved until the day they are ready to leave the nest and make their way to South America, only to return to the north to nest like their parents did. From a pendant cabin in the sky they begin their life’s journey into a world full of green canopies and the sweetness of flowers. The lives of orioles are completely saturated with luxury and beauty and mystery. No wonder they sing.

When I loved you, I was a kingfisher. In traditional Chinese art, the kingfisher is a symbol of joy. I understand why. When I loved you, I was shimmering and radiant. With you, my aim was accurate and precise. My surroundings were peaceful with greenery and sparkling, cool water. I plunged into the pool again and again, and I always found sustenance.

When the seasons changed and our pond froze over, I migrated. I literally crossed an ocean. This is the way of things. Spring came and I found new hunting grounds, new creeks to perch over. This too, is the way of things. Often I think about you. I miss you. I remember that when I loved you, I was a kingfisher.

Knowing is a kind of power. If you can name the things in your life, the things you see and experience every day, it is a kind of control. If you are a child who feels powerless and unable to control his or her circumstances, by learning the names of what you see and encounter every day, it becomes a means of finding your way in the world. Things are not scary or ominous if you can call them by name.

I went to Sunday School as a child and we were taught that names in the bible were important; they had meaning. In special circumstances, God sometimes changed the names of people. “You are no longer Jacob, but Israel.” “You are no longer Simon; you shall be called Peter.” I was bullied and got called mean names when I was in elementary school and I hated it. It was and remains important to me to call things by their true name. I will go to great lengths to find out the correct name of a plant or a tree I do not know. Pronunciation is important. Names are important.

So it came about that I learned the names of all the hawks that came to the farm and I decided to make every single one of them my friends. My dad could not name all the hawks. My teacher could not name all the hawks. My classmates barely knew there were different kinds of hawks at all. Hawks were birds I saw every day, and I slowly learned that they look different when they are younger, that sometimes a species can be darker or lighter, and that the females are larger. They have different habits, too. Not all sit upon the telephone posts watching for mice in the straw. Some like to hunt in the woods and some do not. Some are particular about nesting sites while others are not. I learned where they go, and who eats what, and how they live their lives. This was like a great mystery the earth had shared with me; I needed only a field guide from the library and I could find out and know things that others could not. A field guide was like a book of spells; it named the unknowable. Knowing the correct names of things made my ten year old self feel powerful and important.

I still have a hard time telling a sharp-shinned hawk and a Cooper’s hawk apart and they occupy similar roles. Both have long legs and a steely gaze and both mean death for a pigeon or a robin. I used to sometimes find an explosion of feathers out behind the barn or in the shelterbelt where one of those deadly arrows had hit their mark. Thinking about their precision and weaponry gave me goosebumps. I not only lived in the same world as these deadly assassins, we shared the same farm.

The Swainson’s hawks with their rusty coloured bibs were always common and they remain so. I know now they were following the tractors but as a child I used to fancy that they were watching over me. I loved watching them drop out of the sky like a stone to grab a mouse from the bales. They are handsome and powerful birds that are often disregarded simply because they are so common. I once encountered a pair protecting a nest and they screeched and swooped at me several times. I was looking for spruce cones or some other such thing and I got progressively closer to them in the process. One whooshed so close by my face that I felt the rush of wind from his wings and saw the gleam of his outstretched talons. I took his warning seriously and left the area. I am not one to disregard a message from one so well armed.

Red-tailed hawks have been circling over the prairies for thousands of years. One summer, when I was maybe eight or nine, my dad said something awful to me in the cab of the truck and I started to cry. He then told me to shut up, and that there was no one out here to see me crying so it wasn’t going to help me. When we got out of the truck a moment or two later, perched on a round bale not far away was a red-tailed hawk. He was crouched over a gopher he had just grabbed and our eyes met. I immediately dried my eyes and tried my best to pull myself together. I didn’t want to look wimpy in front of a hawk. I knew they were strong and fierce and brave and I wanted to be like them. It’s funny to me now that as a little kid, I wanted to impress a hawk! What my dad thought about me mattered; what the hawk thought about me mattered more. (If I’m honest, I think a hawk’s opinion even today would be more important to me.) I know those hawks watched over the farm. I know they saw me going through the shelterbelt looking for nests and they saw me picking peas with Grandma and they saw me hiding out behind the barn in the tall, cool grass with a stack of books and thermos of lemonade. I wonder what else they saw.

Over the years my ability to identify a hawk has diminished, even though I still love seeing them. When I moved to Alberta, I was driving between Medicine Hat and Lethbridge one day when I saw an enormous bird of prey I did not recognize. He was down on the ground tearing something apart. My first thought was that this bird was a juvenile bald eagle. I got out my binoculars and looked more closely. I looked again. He was ripping apart and eating a gopher maybe 40 or 50 ft. from the road. His colouring was not right for an eagle though. He was lighter in front with dark brown, black, and rusty colours gorgeously marbled across his back and tail. His beak was distinctly marked in yellow and he had enormous feet equipped with immense, sharp black talons. “Who are you?” I asked him. For days afterwards, I pictured him. I thought about him as I was weeding and I thought about him as I was digging and I thought about him as I was driving. I asked my dear friend (and respected biologist) John Russell if he knew. John laughed. (Nobody laughed like John either, I might add.) “Ferruginous hawk!” John said. He didn’t even have to think about it. He knew right away. “They’re big boys”, John said. “In fact, our largest hawk and one of the largest in the world.” Since then I have seen ferruginous hawks in suitable habitat not infrequently. They are marvelous beasts, large and powerful and aware as all the hawks are. To see a hawk is a joy; to know his name is even better. Knowing is a kind of power.

When I was young, perhaps 10 or 11, I was overnighting at a relative’s house and they had a creek that ran through their acreage. We were not allowed near the creek by ourselves for fear of drowning. At dawn, I left my bed and went to the creek alone even though I knew it was forbidden. I was sure I could be back before anyone noticed I was missing and only my dew-soaked shoes might betray me.

First ray of sun at my back, mist clearing at the bottom of the hill and I flew through that soaking wet grass like a silent prayer. I don’t know what drove me but I know I wanted the chance to see wildlife, I wanted to feel close to them and be near to them. In the midst of the happily gurgling creek was a large flat rock, and without falling in or getting soaked I used smaller, protruding rocks to reach it and climbed upon it.

Birds were singing. All around me they were beginning to sing. I was astonished to realize that without seeing them, I knew their songs. Not all of them, but certainly some. White crowned sparrow, robin, chickadee… That’s a catbird, and that’s a thrush, and that must be a warbler but I don’t know what kind. There was a plop! and I knew a frog had left the shores. Then another. There are many frogs here, I observed. I liked thinking that this was the place where frogs wanted to hang out.

So it was, sitting quietly in my forbidden wilderness and listening to the dawn chorus that I encountered the heron. Out of the reeds and cattails, a statue that I had not noticed suddenly came to life. Perhaps 12 or 15 ft. away from me, this somber and regal bird took a single step and then one more. He was as tall as I was and the same colour as the sky right before a June rain. It would not be an exaggeration to say he was magnificent. I held my breath and stared at him. That was when he turned and looked directly at me.

I have made eye contact with predators several times in my life. Sometimes with bears, sometimes with coyotes or foxes, and once with an orca in the Pacific. It is something that both thrills and humbles you, and makes you feel alive. The heron, with his elegant, serpentine neck and dagger-like beak stood there, balancing on his thin, strong legs…and he watched me. I could see every detail of his feathers, the darker colours around his face and eyes, and his long plumes that wrapped around him like a medieval cloak. I don’t think I could have moved if I had wanted to. I watched him, and he watched me. We took each other in; we communicated. I couldn’t tell you in words what the heron was saying, but I knew he was telling me something and so I listened. I tried to be quiet in my soul and hear him. I tried to know him in a sense. I knew that it was a privilege that he was allowing me to be there with him.

Satisfied that I posed no threat, the heron returned to his vigil scanning for movement in the water. I was transfixed. I have no idea how long I sat there, but I felt as though I were in the heron’s world, and not the other way around. He didn’t move, and neither did I. After what seemed hours (it was probably only a few minutes) there was a movement so fast I didn’t entirely follow it but then a pair of small, shimmering green legs were hanging from the heron’s bill. A slight movement and the frog disappeared down his throat. I must have made a sound or done something to cause some alarm because the heron suddenly turned to me again and opened his great wings like an umbrella. He lifted into the air without a sound and flew right over me and I watched as he grew smaller and smaller and finally disappeared.

Eventually I trudged up the hill and revealed that I had not, in fact, been sleeping in bed because everyone was at the breakfast table asking where I had been. I said I went for a walk. I was made to reassure them that I had not been down to the creek so I lied and said that I hadn’t. I don’t know if I was believed or not but I don’t really care.

To this day, I love the great blue herons. They are so deliberate and patient and exquisite it is easy to forget they are predators. They are agents of death. Any small creature will do. A frog. A fish. A snake. A mouse. A duckling. They are not fussy. Like ancient priests who have memorized the ceremony and the ritual, the heron arrives, positions himself, and finds a smaller life to be sacrificed. He takes this offering with respect and gratitude but without even a glimmer of mercy. His role is the death bringer. He is the living proof that beauty and death often co-exist. None are as beautiful as he, and none carry a sharper blade.

Despite their common name, meadowlarks are not actually true species of larks. They are much more closely related to the orioles. As though they wear watches that were set to very particular times, without fail the meadowlarks return the first week of April. Punctual and focused, the males appear in their dapper gold and black breeding apparel and return to their stations upon the fence posts. At once they begin to sing.

Their song is so specific and recognizable that there is nothing to confuse them with. The meadowlark throws back his head and releases a torrent of notes that rush across the fields and grasslands drenching me in song. The meadowlarks are friends I would miss terribly if they were gone, and I suppress the knowledge that their numbers are declining.

Once, when I was about 12 years old, I found a meadowlark nest. It is the only one I have ever found in my entire life. I was walking in the open field out behind the barn and suddenly a bird erupted out of the ground at my feet. It scared the daylights out of me. It took me a second to realize that it was a meadowlark, and I had come perilously close to stepping on her small and improbable house. Built like a tiny oven, she had made an elegant little bower of dried brown grass. Inside there were five perfect and very small white eggs. The eggs could not be seen while standing and looking down; indeed one could not tell there was a nest there at all. Only when I crouched down and viewed it from the side could I see the treasure hidden within and then only because I knew it must be there. I knew I had found something very special, and I knew that I needed to show my grandmother. Somehow, I had the presence of mind to very carefully count the number of steps from the nest to the fence, and I propped a stone near the fence post so I could find my way back to it.

I told Grandma about the nest immediately. I was not quite in hysterics but I was definitely well beyond normal levels of excitement. Grandma smiled and listened to what I was saying and then said “I have never seen a meadowlark nest before.” The next morning at dawn we went out together and I recounted the steps to the nest. Again the mother bird left only when we were right upon her. Grandma was reverent and deeply pleased with my discovery. Had I not been so careful as to mark the location I would never have found it again. As I type these words, I realize that my Grandma would have been only in her early 60’s at this time. Isn’t it funny that I remember marveling that in all her many springs and long years she had never seen the carefully hidden nest of the meadowlark. I was able to show her something she had never seen, which I felt was a great victory of some sort.

She observed for only a moment or two and then said to me “come. We’ll not disturb her any more than we must. We don’t want the eggs to get cold.” We walked back to the house in silence smiling and pondering what it all meant. Somewhere nearby on a fence post a meadowlark began to sing.

There was that moment, that four and half minutes in my life, when you appeared to me like a tiny ferruginous angel hovering above that mountain stream. I had been looking for flowers, and apparently, so had you. Neither of us had been looking for each other but there we were.

We were both earnestly seeking the penstemons and colombines and Indian paintbrush and both of us had a hunger to feed. Yours was physical, mine was spiritual. Just for that brief moment, on that flawless early summer day, our paths crossed. I don’t know what you encountered or what you saw on your journey down through the mountains. I don’t know how many times in your life you had traveled that way, or even how long your kind lives. A few years, perhaps? I wondered if you had encountered humans before. I remember thinking how lovely it was that we were both seeking the same thing at the same time. I wondered how many thousands of kilometers you had flown to get where we both now stood; I on the earth and you hovering in mid air.

Anyway, I wish I could tell you how many times in my memory I have returned to that perfect image I have of you, with your tiny wings drawing precise figure eights in the air and how the sun sparkled so delightfully on your tiny, shining feathers. Just the way you were glittering in the sun, you were so magnificent, I really felt quite dazzled by your radiance. Truly I wanted to tell you what a jewel you were. I actually may have, I don’t remember. You disappeared just like that, but a moment later you came back. Perhaps I had communicated something to you. Perhaps you were curious about me. Your array of glittering rusty colours changed with your movements, and I was completely astonished by your perfection, by the improbability of your existence, and by the fact that we were together on a mountain side in a way that made me feel like we were friends.

So often I find myself thinking about you, of your exquisite iridescence, and how you came so close to me that I could have reached out and touched you. Some of our indigenous people say you are a healer. I am inclined to agree.

“You are guided by the spirit of the owl”, an indigenous friend told me before I left to walk the Camino Santiago several years ago. “The owl sees through the darkness”, she explained. “Both physical and metaphorical.”

I am trying now to see through darkness again. I have been seeking the counsel of owls. I have been dreaming of them. I have been reaching out to them. I have walked by the river and tried to see through the darkness of the cold water. I have sought books for guidance. The sky looks lonely. I am trying to see details in the chaos.

Yesterday someone told me that she had seen a barred owl on a recent trip to Vancouver. I was pleased about this. I remember hearing them calling one night when I was staying at a friend’s house up on the north shore. They are far away, these owls, but still I hear them. I feel them. I have loved them from down on the forest floor as they perch high up on mossy branches watching with their black, stony eyes. “This is new territory”, I tell them. “I don’t know what to do here.” “There is more than one way to know something”, they tell me. Two nights past I dreamed of an old love from long ago. I felt beautiful when I awoke. I don’t know what it means. I asked the owls about it. They blinked and swiveled their heads. “Only shadows”, they said. “Shadows from long ago. Let them go.” I said I was trying.

“This is the end of the line”, I said to them. “No”, they hooted softly in reply. “New beginnings. New opportunities. The world is finite and it stops and starts.” They stare at me quietly from the branches. “How shall I proceed?” I ask them. They look at me, but the sun is rising and the forest is getting brighter, and then one flies away and then the other.

There are actually very few of them now. Since the arrival of WNV (West Nile Virus) in North America, their numbers have dropped by more than 40%. I don’t see them in the same numbers that I did when I was a child, and in fact some years I am surprised to see them at all. Although a few sometimes remain throughout the winter, and occasionally they are back as early as mid February, most years I first hear their cawing and conversations in about the middle of March.

Their feathers are absent of light; they are apparitions and shadows and slightly reviled. Not by me, of course. I love them wholeheartedly and unashamedly, which I think is really the only real way to love something. They are close relations to the magpies, another bird that is mostly scorned and persecuted.

They kill robins!” my friend Darlene says angrily. “They take all the robin eggs and their babies!” It is true that crows will eat eggs and nestlings if the opportunity presents itself, but therein lies the truth. Crows are opportunists more than they are hunters. Cats and window strikes kill significantly more songbirds than crows do. The squirrels that people think are so cute frequently raid the nests of songbirds and eat their eggs and babies. Cats are the number one cause of death for birds in North America. Still, I can understand her position. A crow, after all, is much better casting for an enemy. The crows with their darkness and knowing glances are much easier to vilify than that beautiful cat curled up and purring in the sun. Crows have about them that air of suffering and death; we call a group of them a murder, even. How easy it is to make them objects of scorn. How effortless to label them as merchants of blood.

I love the crows. I love their radiant black plumage and the intelligent gleam in their eyes. They are keen observers and shrewd conspirators. I would rather have crows than humans, in most instances. The crows have learned to live in our towns and our cities, and they watch us, and I think it makes us uncomfortable. They know about us in ways that we sense other birds do not. They see the things we might prefer to keep hidden.

I once saw a woman toss a piece of her fast food, greasy cheeseburger to a crow. She wasn’t what you might call a “respectable” woman; this was in Vancouver’s east end. It was an unexpected charitable act; a glimmer of kindness in a cold world. I was waiting for the bus and I saw her. I watched her, transfixed and unable to look away. I don’t think she noticed me. She stood on the edge of an alley. She had long legs and long hair. I could tell that she had been pretty once, long ago before the drugs and the nights with strangers and the darkness came.

She crouched down and tossed him a piece of food as he stood on the curb watching, watching her so intently. He was not afraid to look her in the eye; his gaze never wavered even for a moment. With great dignity, he nodded to her. It was ever so slight; I could easily have missed it. The crow said “thank you.” He bent down to collect this morsel in his beak and I saw his dark form lift into the air. I saw the lady smile; it was like the sun breaking through on an overcast winter day. For the briefest moment, she was radiant. The bus came. I never saw either of them again. I have been thinking about them ever since.