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This is for the birds
Bluebord eggs
A clutch of bluebird eggs in a nest. While the pandemic forces us to disrupt routines, the birds are a reminder of the miracle of nature. Photo provided/ALICE STEYAART

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers— That perches in the soul— ” Emily Dickinson.

If you, like we, are doing your patriotic duty by doing nothing, going nowhere, and exploring new ways of being alone, one road to salvation might be in your own backyard. In your front yard, too. Birds. My friend Laura texted recently, “What gives me joy in scary days? Over feeding my birds. Let them eat like kings!”

A confession: I am no expert birder. My qualifications are simply linked to joy and the possession of a National Audubon Society Field Guide to Birds, Eastern Region.

Too, I frequent the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, have participated in the Great Back Yard Bird Count. And my most recent purchase at The Book Store on the Hill had the alluring title of “What You Should Know About the Purple Martin: America’s Most Wanted Bird.” I will share most of what I have learned from the Great State Bird Debate of 1965 in Illinois at another date, but I did find one piece of information relevant to these times, which may require some creative mixology.

The controversy in Illinois inspired taverns and bars in Springfield to begin offering a signature cocktail, the Purple Martini. In my research I have discovered that this libation involves blue Curacao. Unless you happen to keep this elixir stocked in your liquor cabinet, that would involve a trip to a store, which would defeat the purpose of our anti-social social distancing.

So I return to the backyard feeders here.

These birds are my familiar friends, linking me to others I love and even to generations past. My friend Suzanne, who lives in Macon, has warm and oddly coincidental encounters, if you believe in such things, with red birds which summon for her the presence of her mother. My Rome friend’s father is a crow.

My own mother comes with the cedar waxwings.

Memories of her calling softly, “They are here!” as we carefully make our way to the dining room windows, where the mysterious, masked birds gorge themselves on the pyracantha berries not two inches from our wondering eyes.

Here on the coast, we have the painted buntings. In any part of my past life, I would have been more than satisfied, gleeful even, with the flamboyant, parti-colored little birds that come to my feeder every year. In fact, one year they nested in the topiary ivy at my front door.

The female blended with the ivy and sat frozen as we came and went, the only thing liquid were her eyes during the two weeks it took the eggs to hatch. We watched eagerly through the side lights at the miracle before us.

But this spring I was going to go for the bluebirds. My feeders are filled with titmice, chickadees, wrens and downy woodpeckers. I have red-bellied ones, too.

And purple finches right now, nobody (read gold finches) interested in grape jelly or nyjer. Time soon to switch to mealworms. In fact, I may be a little late, for the bluebirds are nesting and laying their sky blue clutches, I hear from Alice.

Lynne, who lives across the marsh, tells me every year, “Oh, my bluebirds are back, nesting in their house!” I pretend to be happy about that, all the while plotting to lure them to our yard with my deliciously writhing mealworms. “I have a refrigerator filled with even more mealworms, my little blue darlings!

Won’t you come on over to the east side of the marsh?” I whisper.

I have a mealworm source, the same one that many folks hereabouts use. Wild Birds Unlimited in Savannah. But we Bryan Countians have an ultra-local connection.

Craig and Nancy McEwan, who own the store, and long-time store manager Nicole Janke are all residents of Richmond Hill.

Craig tells me that they sell between 4,500,000 and 5,000,000 mealworms annually. That’s one mess of worms.

His wife, he says, is the real birder in the family.

He laughs, “ When Nancy and I decided to buy the store, I figured our income would go up simply by her having access to wholesale prices for mealworms.” I could feel her addiction coming my way.

So what is it that is so exciting about seeing a new bird at the feeder?

Or rejoicing in the familiar ones that visit every day? I am considering these things right now, sequestered at home. This is what I am thinking: The birds arrive as scheduled, as if nothing has happened, as if the world were the same this year as every year. As if the world were the same as it was even two weeks ago and we began to get an inkling of what this coronavirus pandemic might mean — and even now, as we struggle to process the implications, to understand the connection between toilet paper and death, the birds are building their nests.

There’s something deeply comforting in the air. Our birds are reminding us of larger forces, the seasons and the rhythms of nature, the lengthening days, and, to borrow from Whitman, the “sextillion miracles” that beset our senses every day.

Even in the midst of these times, of disrupted routines, some of us forced together, some of us forced apart, still the bluebirds are flashing their electric cobalt winds across the marsh, the cardinals are at the feeder and the cedar waxwings have made their visit and even now are working their way north.

Their portrait hangs by my front door in honor of my mother.

By Easter, the painted buntings will be here.

Cedar waxwing
A portrait of cedar waxwings that hangs on the Pattons wall in honor of the writer’s mother. Photo by RENA PATTON
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