Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Grosbeak Tragedy, and Marianne Boruch's poem, Crushed Birds

Photo © 2015 by Becca Mulenburg.
This week, while I was still in the happy afterglow of having helped rescue a baby squirrel and restore her to her mother, I got an email from Becca Mulenburg, who had made a grotesque discovery in her own backyard. She wrote, “On the ground, about twenty feet outside of my window in the vicinity of my bird feeders and water bowl, there was a gray squirrel eating an Evening Grosbeak.”

To spot a squirrel eating any bird is hard—it’s one thing when they pig out on birdseed, but we just don’t expect to see them devouring actual birds. And to see one eating such a special, rare bird made it even more heartbreaking. Evening Grosbeaks used to be abundant up here, but have declined dramatically.

Becca had first spotted what appears to be a small family group on August 8. From her photos, the dead one seems to be an young male. I’m presuming the squirrel didn’t kill the bird outright, but it’s mystifying how it died—Becca’s windows are well protected from collisions. So it’s a heartbreaking mystery.

Last fall, during our warbler fallout, everyone seemed to be finding dead Yellow-rumped Warblers in their yards, and Highway 61 was littered with carcasses. In terms of numbers, the enormity of that disaster dwarfs Becca’s situation, but somehow we get a stronger visceral feeling when the victim of a tragedy is someone we know personally. Becca had been observing this little family for more than a week before watching one being ripped apart before her eyes.

My friend Marianne Boruch, an acclaimed poet who teaches in the MFA program at Purdue, often writes poems about birds. I think her poem Crushed Birds makes a lovely requiem for Becca’s poor Evening Grosbeak, as well as those Highway 61 birds from last fall. 

Crushed Birds 
So many crushed birds in the street.
I don’t know why it rains so,
taking the small bodies
down to their bones, just a few
but they are silver. 
Day by day, more fall—
a sparrow, a young cardinal
not yet
his true color. Sometimes the head
is perfect, the eye
glossy, no failure in its depths.
It’s the wings
that are shattered, as if
in flight, gravity gave way, the sky itself
throwing down this thing
passing through it. 
There was one I couldn’t
recognize; bits of muscle
tied to bone, a few
feathers awry. Even a cat
would complain. In rain, it looked
washed by every human sadness,
not a heart or a thought, more
what aches and aches—those times
I stood there
and could not speak, didn’t say…

That was Marianne Boruch’s poem, Crushed Birds, in her book, Poems New &Selected, published in 2004 by the Oberlin College Press.

Photo © 2015 by Becca Mulenburg.