Last week I was in Cable, Wisconsin, where a gentleman told me a most interesting story about someone who loved birds, especially crows, very much. When the person died, a group of crows gathered in a tree and remained quietly during the entire service. He saw this himself, and found it incredibly moving and significant.
I came home to a letter from a friend of mine in Washington D.C. She sent me a clipping from the Washington Post from July 14. A veterinarian named Michael W. Fox does a question/answer column for them, and the first letter fascinated my friend. It was from a J.K. in Bethesda, and read:
Dear Dr Fox:
I read with great interest your volumn about birds and your request for stories that involve te appearance of birds during an emotional or sensitive time.
I had an unusual bird event the day that my mother died.
My mother had stopped talking and was in a sleeping state. I was alone with her in her second-floor bedroom. The room was very quiet, until I heard a chirp at the window. This by itself was unusual. I walked to the window and saw the most amazing sight: The tree outside was filled with birds, and not just a flock of one kind. There were cardinals, robins, crows, chickadees, purple finches, goldfinches, mourning doves, sparrows, and one tufted titmouse.
Our minister came to deliver last rites that afternoon. I told her what had happened, and she said she’d heard of such a gathering before. Nature knows when something extraordinary is happening, and these birds were gathering for the event.
The arrival of these birds continues to amaze me and has given me hope that there really is a spiritual world beyond the living. I ponder this nature mystery and hope that sharing this will give hope to others.
Dr. Fox answered:
Readers might remember my account of an event almost identical to what you describe that occurred around the time of my mother’s death thousands of miles away.
Skeptics speak of mere coincidence, but we should not lose our sense of awe and wonder. In the metaphysics of such coincidental events might be deeper truths that mortals do not yet fully comprehend.
Those whose hearts and minds are open to nature are surely more receptive to such messages or unusual animal phenomena, especially during the passing of a loved one, than are those who are not mindful of possible spiritual connection between humans and fellow creatures.
Over the years many people have told me similar stories, and I have some of my own. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the ways birds have touched my life at some of the most profound moments of loss and what I think it means.
Yesterday I talked about a Washington Post column by a veterinarian talking about unusual appearances of birds surrounding a person’s death. These things have happened to me, too.
When my cousin died in the early 70s, a Brown Thrasher sang outside the church throughout the funeral Mass. When his dad, my uncle, died in the 90s, his funeral was held in the same church, and again a Brown Thrasher sang outside the church. It was very lovely and moving for me, and now I can’t hear a Brown Thrasher without remembering my cousin and uncle. Of course, both of them died at the same point in spring when Brown Thrashers in the Chicago area are expected to be singing, and since the funerals were held in the same church, it’s not surprising that the same birds would be drawn to the surrounding habitat. After both, I asked family members if they’d noticed the Brown Thrasher singing, but no one else did. I can hardly attribute their singing outside the funeral to anything except my own awareness of birds. I feel richer to be able to stir up memories of two dearly-loved people whenever I hear a Brown Thrasher, but this is due to my personal connection to birds, not to birds feeling some obligation to go outside their own lives to enrich ours.
After I returned from my father’s funeral, I took a walk in my favorite park and saw a group of Buff-breasted Sandpipers. I’d never seen that species before, and wouldn’t have expected them where I saw them, but it was early September, right when they’re migrating, and you never really know what to expect when you go birding. I still found it exceptionally moving to have that particular species, lovely in a soft, literally grounded sort of way, appear when I felt so bereft and lost.
I was very close to the uncle who was my godfather. He loved the outdoors as much as I did. I stayed with him and my aunt for a few weeks while he was dying. When I needed a few minutes of respite, I’d leave their Chicago lakeshore apartment to take a little walk along the lake near Montrose Harbor. He died in late summer, when birds were first starting to migrate. I hadn’t spent much time birding in that area along Lake Shore Drive before, and the birds I was seeing in there were extraordinary. I could have attached all sorts of spiritual significance to them being there as if they were gathering in recognition that my uncle’s ebbing life was a cosmic event. But that area of the lakeshore is actually well-known to be a migration magnet. There was no magic involved, even if seeing those birds at such a difficult time was deeply soothing and healing for me. He died in the middle of the night, and the following morning, after all the various essentials were dealt with, my aunt went to her sister’s and my sister-in-law picked me up to take me away for a day of peace. We headed up to Hyde Park, where I finally got to see the storied Monk Parakeets that have nested there for decades. Seeing their homey little family groups was balm to my soul.
Comforting as it is to see birds during trying times, especially ones as emotionally fraught as experiencing a death, the birds themselves are too involved in their own lives to be spending time providing symbolism and meaning for our lives. Tomorrow I’ll talk a bit more about why we attach such significance to birds, but why we diminish the meaning and significance of their lives when we get too carried away with this.
My father-in-law died during a Snowy Owl invasion. For weeks, every morning either my husband or I, or both of us, drove to Port Wing. And every single day, we saw at least one Snowy Owl, and sometimes several. Many people believe seeing an owl portends a death, but really, no more people died that winter than other years, and other people I’ve loved died without my seeing a single owl near the time of death. And most people seeing those owls didn’t lose anyone that year. Those owls weren’t there because my father-in-law was dying—they were there for reasons particular to them, but their presence, though unconnected in any way to me, was endlessly comforting to me.
Something deep within humans makes us yearn to understand the universe and our place in it. Ironically, this human need is precisely at the crux of both science and religion. Scientists look at birds and see research subjects that can help us understand evolution, animal behavior, how brain neurons regenerate, and all manner of other subjects. Other people look at those same birds and see mystic connections to angels—indeed, virtually all depictions of angels show them with bird wings. To raise birds even higher in our spiritual awareness, Christians have the New Testament line about God noting the fall of a sparrow. Some bird songs are ethereally beautiful, and they seem to fly almost up to the sky, which many of us associate with heaven.
Even people who don’t belong to any religious faith usually have some sense of yearning that our love for nature is requited. Robert Frost wrote a lovely poem, Two Look at Two, about a couple taking a walk and encountering a doe and then a buck in the woods. He ends it:
Still they stood,
A great wave from it going over them,
As if the earth in one unlooked-for favour
Had made them certain earth returned their love.
I’m pretty sure that when I die, my kids will look at chickadees differently. But I trust they won’t think my soul is flitting around in those tiny beings who have plenty enough on their plate as it is without having to drag human spirits everywhere they go. Many of us, especially me, look to birds for spiritual comfort, but that shouldn’t require molding birds into our spiritual needs.
Brooks Atkinson wrote:
Although birds coexist with us on this eroded planet, they live independently of us with a self-sufficiency that is almost a rebuke. In the world of birds a symposium on the purpose of life would be inconceivable. They do not need it. We are not that self-reliant. We are the ones who have lost our way.
But looking at birds can help us find our way. When it comes down to it, seeing birds as birds, not as angels or messengers but simply as themselves, whether flying in the heavens or pulling worms from the earth, is plenty beautiful and evocative enough. While grappling with breast cancer, Rachel Carson wrote,
There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds; in the ebb and flow of the tides; responding to sun and moon as they have done for millions of years; in the repose of the folded bud in winter, ready within its sheath for spring. There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature, the assurance that night after night, dawn comes, and spring after winter.Terry Tempest Williams wrote in her lyrical book, Refuge:
I pray to the birds. I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.