The Thing with Feathers

Sometimes birding brings back a strong and immediate sense of place from another time or another country.

The Cooper’s hawks have fledged two young: I see them every few walks, never (yet) very far from their nest, and always together.  There’s a noticeable size difference between them, but as they are still in juvenile plumage, I can’t tell if that’s a gender difference–females being noticeably larger than males–or if it’s just hatching order.  By now, they should be hunting independently; the rich bird life of summer likely providing sufficient prey. If they survive through to the winter, they may well become one of the birds that swoops around the corner of our house to take a bird from a feeder.  That between-houses and around-corners dash is characteristic of the Cooper’s Hawk (and its smaller, almost identical cousin the Sharp-shinned Hawk): Cooper’s Hawks were once called ‘chicken hawks’ because they used the same techniques in farmyards, using buildings as cover to grab a foraging chicken.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

The thistles have gone to seed, and there seems, some mornings, to be a goldfinch feeding on almost every thistle head.  They are nesting now, timed to coincide with the thistle and milkweed seed crops. They are by far the most common bird I see–and hear–on any walk. Right now, I’m seeing far more of the bright males than the olive-drab females, who are likely sitting on nests. As goldenrod comes into flower, I find it just a bit harder to find the males in the fields: not everything bright yellow is a goldfinch now!

In among the chipping sparrows this week was a cowbird chick, twice the size of its unknowing foster parents, actively going into begging mode – beak open, tail and wings quivering – each time its parents approached.  Mostly, they ignored it: it could fly, and it was time for it to learn to feed itself.  The chipping sparrows that nested in the forsythia hedge at our house raised a cowbird this year too: at first, of course, they fed it constantly, and then less often, and then not at all.  For a day it sat on our deck railing or on top of a garden ornament, looking disconsolate, occasionally flying up to the feeder but not feeding, and then it vanished.  But if it lives to adulthood, and it was a female, it will choose chipping sparrow nests to lay its eggs in too, because it was raised by them. 

Sometimes birding brings back a strong and immediate sense of place from another time, or even another country.  Juvenile American robins are everywhere: I must have counted over two dozen in one six kilometre walk the other day. But for some reason, every time I raised my binoculars to look at one, my brain said “Fieldfare”. Fieldfares are a European thrush, fairly closely related to American robins, and not dissimilar in appearance to their juveniles. But I’ve been looking at juvenile robins (consciously) for about fifty-five years. I’ve only been looking at fieldfares for about twenty-five, so I’m still trying to work out why I was so convinced I was not in North America: the day was classic Ontario high summer, and everything should have said ‘home’ to me.

Fieldfare

My first fieldfares were in an old orchard at Leighton Moss RSPB reserve, on Christmas Eve of 1991. We  were driving to Scotland to spend Christmas Day with my husband’s cousins; Leighton Moss is in Lancashire, more or less on the way. I remember the day as changeable, cloud giving way to brilliant low sunshine, the light winking in and out. We were walking from the visitor’s centre along the lane that borders the reserve, making our way to the footpath that runs out into the reedbeds. A rush of wings, and thrushes exploded into the old orchard: fieldfare, and their cousins the redwings. Both were new to us, and in the winter light and bare trees they were a delight of sound and colour. I’ve seen both species many times since then, but I remember them best from that first sighting.  Emily Dickinson wrote ‘hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…’ but for me, ‘the thing with feathers’ is a time machine, one that, in the time it takes to raise my binoculars, can take me from an August morning in Ontario in 2020 to a mid-winter afternoon in northern England in 1991.

Photo credits:

Cooper’s Hawk: Pauk, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC 2.0;

Fieldfare: Teresa Reynolds, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC 3.0

Featured Image: Goldfinches on Milkweed (C) Marian L Thorpe 1994

Author: marianlthorpe

Not content with two careers as a research scientist and an educator, Marian L Thorpe decided to go back to what she’d always wanted to do and be a writer. Author of the alternative world medieval trilogy Empire’s Legacy, Marian also has published short stories and poetry. Her life-long interest in Roman and post-Roman European history informs her novels, while her avocations of landscape archaeology and birding provide background to her settings. As well as writing and editing professionally, Marian oversees Arboretum Press, a small publishing imprint run as a collective. Marian is currently writing Empire's Reprise, the trilogy following Empire's Legacy.

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