Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Mystical" connections with birds

(Transcript of three For the Birds segments, from July 25, July 26, and July 27, 2011)
American Crow
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.

Brown Thrasher

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.

Monk Parakeet

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.

Snowy Owl

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.

White-tailed Deer

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.

Black-capped Chickadee

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.



  1. When my father passed a very large flock of crows perched on the house roof. I lived on the same property and as I neared they took off flying in four different directions (north, east, sout and west) I asked a native American friend what the meaning was and her answer was: "your father must have had many friends. The crows were flying to all the end of the earth to announce his passing". We had his memorial open house a week later and people we didn't even know showed up. Men that he had roomed with in his 20's even. We were astounded at the number of people that my father had in some way touched their lives. It was amazing.

  2. When I arrived home after my father died there was a white dove in my driveway. It stayed three days. I had never seen a dove before and have never seen one since. We have mourning doves, but not pure white like this one...did not have a partner. I intuitively knew that my father was at peace.

  3. When my dad passed away, there were two ducks "playing in the sky" quacking and swooping just above my house....then a black crow type bird flew over the top of them and they all went.......I would like to think this was my uncle coming to collect my dad and their mother keeping watch too..................

  4. There must be a reason why birds are so often depicted in literature as symbolic! Reading people's experience of mystical connections in the comments is actually fascinating I must say - great post!


  5. I heard a tweet from down the hall, so I went down to the bedroom and opened the blinds to see a bluejay, a woodpecker, a cardinal (flew by), a crow, a robin, and a male and female chickadee all within few minutes. Basically all at the same time..each doing their own thing (playing in the tree). It seemed magical..I found out my aunt passed away...and it seems to be about the same day she passed..she always fed bluejays at her home..she was very magical..coincidence? Perhaps.

  6. I even took a few videos of each bird..except the cardinal and robin..flew by..made an appearance..(:

  7. I had a weird thing happen to me the other day when I found out my closest friend passed on from committing suicide. I was walking home after work just sobbing about the situation. I randomly had a black bird chirping at me like crazy and followed me for a bit and I said hello back to it but it flew off coming towards me. I've never had such a thing happen before. I somehow feel like it was my best friend saying that everything will be okay. </3

  8. When I came home from my Mother's funeral there was a wild bird in her house trying to get out. Never in 30 years has this happened in her home. I think it was a sign of comfort for me. I will never forget it. I knew instantly this was of supernatural origin. Glynny RN

  9. When I returned to my mother's home after her funeral there was a wild bird trying to get out. Never in 30 years of her living there has this happened. I knew instantly it was a sign of supernatural origin. I thought it meant don't grieve free...I will NEVER forget it...Glynny RN I also find pennies everywhere I go...

  10. I'm a care assistant, yesterday most amazing thing happened, I was sitting with person who was dying , the moment she died birds was singing/chirping outside her window, mind there was silence before that but exactly the moment when me and my colleague was holding ladies hand and she had her last breath this unusual bird singing.. that was extraordinari ..

  11. I had to put my beloved dog down this past January. She was the love of my life. I could not go to work the next day as my eyes were almost swollen shut. I went outside that next day and a wild bird landed on the hood of my truck. I reached out to pet it. It did not fly away. I pet it for about 30 seconds. My dog Penny loved feathers and birds. It was very comforting. I've never had a wild bird let me touch it.

  12. I was with my mother as she took her last breath in hospice in 2007. As we all left the hospice that night, at 2am, my family was startled to hear robins singing, as they usually do at sunrise in Spring. It just seemed unusual to hear that in the middle of the night. My theory is that maybe birds see a different wavelength of light than we do, and maybe saw something that we didn't. I will never forget that moment of hearing the birds sing. It was reassuring.

  13. My mom loved chickadees and I remember vividly her teaching me their song when I was about five. My sister and I moved our 92 year Mom from Fla. to WA state five years ago and found an assisted care facility near us. At her new home her days were spent sitting on her patio and watching the local birds. At my home she would do the same. We bought her a bright red sweater with chickadees on it and encouraged her to wear it on special occasions like Christmas and Thanksgiving. It was her favorite. In fact, she wore it on her 96th birthday one month before she died. Two weeks after her death I was gathering her things from her room, handing out her favorites to her fellow female residents, when I saw the red chickadee sweater I knew that I could not part with it, so I stashed it in a bag and drove home. Upon arrival at my home I parked under our bare apple tree and started to get out of the car. I remembered the sweater, grabbed it and as I emerged from the car I heard it - the song of the chickadee. There, three feet from me, hopped a chickadee jumping from limb to limb before me. I rushed into the house to tell my husband and he too saw the bird who had never visited our yard before. I started to cry and felt immediate comfort. Since then I stand beneath a huge maple in my yard where we have a feeder and implore her to “come see me.” She does every single time and has even brought a mate who I believe to be my dad. Sometimes I feel like I am a bit “dotty” about this, but continue to seek her company nonetheless. I do believe that my mom’s spirit is with me in the form of a chatty chickadee.

  14. On 1/4/19, I fell outside my front door and twisted my leg oddly on something slimy I could not see. I also have a condition where pain is felt even higher than what has occurred, I was in excruciating pain, crying, and unable to move my leg without causing more pain. I feed our birds in a courtyard that I was now laying on the otherside of, on a covered walkway. I lay there for 40 minutes for my husband to get to me, and I looked up and saw all of my birds, mostly cardinals and their mates, and several others species, and they were sitting side by side, almost touching, with other ones who I knew they fought with daily for food, which amazed me, but I soon realized that they had come to support me, and truly their presence calmed me and I forgot my horrid pain, or magically they were healing me. I would turn away from them and the pain became immense and then when I looked back at them it went away. This was overwhelming to be experiencing it all (for 40 minutes) and then my gaze went to another direction and I saw one of my cardinals laying oddly on the slate walkway, a little propped up against the courtyard wall. My husband arrived and we determined I needed an ambulance, and I asked him to go check on the bird, see told me he was alive, he got a kitchen towel to wrap him and brought him to me. It was indeed one of my most favorite bird, I named about 15 of them and they will come if I call them. I held him, called him by my name for him, he was trembling at first, and he calmed down and I comforted him til the ambulance arrive 30 minutes later, and when my attention moved to the responders, I looked back to see that he had just died in my arms. I was once again astounded that during my care and devotion to him my pain was gone, and that he waited to die until help arrived. I share this story with little explanation except the facts as I know them, and the knowing love I also felt that transcended the extreme pain I was in. One other note, when I pointed to the sick cardinal, to the tree full of birds, they would not change their gaze from me to where I was pointing. I do believe that "something" that was happening, and that it was coming from them, the effect was like day and night for my situation. I can even feel their love as I write this.