I recently read a tirade by yet another person complaining that conservationists and environmentalists prefer animals to human beings. I find this endlessly frustrating because what made me love birds in the first place was my connection to beloved people who loved birds. My grandmother died when I was very little. My only personal recollection of her is climbing into the bed with her after her double radical mastectomy. She couldn’t lift her arms to hug me, and asked me to lift them for her. Her warm touch infused me with love. She was named Laura too, and my aunts and uncles told me throughout my childhood how much she loved birds. After she died, whenever I saw a bird winging through the sky, I felt a warm glow as if it were a messenger from heaven, carrying my love to my grandmother, and her love back to me.
My Grandpa told me that when he was a young man, he read a newspaper story about the death of the last Passenger Pigeon. He said extinction was the saddest thing on earth, marking the end of one of God’s creatures forever and ever. Now when I think of the story of Noah’s Ark, I remember my Grandpa. The God of the Bible, who took notice of the fall of a sparrow, was quite specific in his command to Noah to to save every species.
Strands of love for my Grandpa are especially woven into my love for warblers. He had pet canaries, and told me stories about miners who brought canaries down into the mines. If a canary died, the men knew they had to get out in a hurry before undetectable poisonous gases killed them. The first time I saw a flock of warblers, as tiny as canaries but bearing glowingly vivid plumage, I thought they must be the angels of those canaries who had died to save human beings. Long after I discovered what warblers really were, seeing them in brilliant spring plumage still makes me feel as happy and safe and warm as that little girl snuggled in her grandpa’s lap imagining angel birds.
My grandmother died before I turned 2, and we saw my Grandpa only once or twice a year. My home was dysfunctional, chaotic, and violent, and many children in our neighborhood weren’t allowed to play with us. But at bedtime, I’d listen to House Sparrows cheeping excitedly from bushes along the house. They seemed to be telling one another stories about their day’s adventures as they said goodnight. No one ever kissed me goodnight or tucked me in, but I imagined belonging to a sparrow family—that made me feel less lonely and excluded. On the first day of first grade, a sweet young priest named Father Ciemega came into our classroom. When he asked if anyone could recite the alphabet, I lurched up, waving my hand in a most Hermione Granger-like way. He called on me, and after I reached ‘xyz’, he handed me a holy card depicting God’s hand gently cradling some baby sparrows. That seemed like a special message just for me.
(not the same holy card as I received)
I can’t speak for all environmentalists, but my love for birds is fundamentally rooted in these deeply personal, human experiences. Close encounters of the bird kind don’t just gratify the human mind—our experiences with birds have the power to touch our hearts and stir our very souls.
In coming weeks, I’ll focus some blog posts and "For the Birds" programs on deeply spiritual, soul-enriching experiences I’ve had with special birds.