Me, my wife, our teenager and our 5-year old, we knew nothing about birds before the lockdown sent us inside in March. Our cramped home was suburban-convenient before the pandemic hit, nestled a few blocks from a school we don’t go in and a train downtown we won’t ride, and now it is just small.
It was a bedroom short and had nothing a person could call work space beyond the dining room table even before it became our entire lives. But it did have windows, sunny and bright in the morning, that looked out on the worn patch of yard just outside so I bought a bird feeder and some cheap seed and mounted it just outside our dining room window. We needed a distraction.
The birds came in swarms, tiny brown ones at first that constantly pecked at each other over the absolute trash seed we’d put out. It was like we’d opened an avian fight club. Then came the cardinals, regal and red, and the goldfinches, a hallucinatory yellow. They all fought, too, but they were beautiful.
The 5-year-old kept telling us he’d seen a blue jay, but it would always fly off, he’d claim, when we turned around. We thought it was a way of getting attention after losing his preschool, his swim lessons, his friends — everything his tiny world encompassed — to the pandemic. A phantom bird for attention, a way of controlling the tiny slice of world that existed outside our window. When I saw it for the first time, its iridescent blue tail catching the late spring sunlight, I screamed. He was right.
The pandemic required full days of work to become half days, our time now split down the middle between work and child care. We began drawing birds, my son and I, making a poster a week, one bird a day. He and I drew in the mornings, and he would study the birds with his mother in the afternoons. The time split was inconvenient, but how long could it possibly last, we asked.
Spring turned into summer and we were still inside. That one feeder became two and then three. A suction-cup feeder on the window. A thistle feeder on the fence. When the 5-year-old and I were kicking a soccer ball in our tiny mud patch of a yard and a hummingbird flew overhead, that was the next feeder we hung.
Remote school ended for our teenage son, and summer break meant more of the same. We were forever indoors, but the world was alive in our tiny yard that was more weeds and dirt than grass.
I bought a pole that could hold six feeders at a time. We’ve only gotten drive-through twice in the last eight months, but kept our fly-up fully stocked at all times. Two kinds of suet. A feeder built for woodpeckers. One that could hold whole peanuts for the blue jays; it became a prize the neighborhood squirrels dedicated their lives to claim. A second hummingbird feeder went up after we read they were highly territorial.
The five-year-old got a children’s guide to birds for his birthday, a birthday celebrated inside. He spent hours poring over it, teaching himself to read by sheer desire, calling out for help with words that grew longer and more complex as the weeks wore on. He memorized page after page.
The posters we draw line the walls of our dining room now — 25 at this point, one a week, the number always increasing. His tiny hand was unsure at first, lines and lettering halting and hesitant, but as weeks became months, he’s grown more confident and ambitious. Backyard birds. Sea birds. Exotics, Crayola bright. They reach the ceiling. We’re running out of space.
A new school year started and we were still inside. The teenager retreated to high school in his bedroom while we crammed a tiny desk into the corner of our dining room. Zoom kindergarten unfolded on a tablet screen, birds swarming the feeders just outside. For show and tell the 5-year-old flipped the camera and let the other kids see the birds. Zoom school isn’t all bad.
School’s start gave way to fall, leaves glowing in yellows and reds. We prepare for the unknowns of the “dark winter” ahead, holding on to fall like a rope above a pit. Cases are up everywhere, over a million in just a week. The numbers — the numbers are people, I remind myself when I check them every day — seem impossible, yet experts warn they’ll grow even larger when winter comes.
Things are changing, rapidly. We stay inside and look out.
The feeders are changing too. Migratory birds visit for stopovers unexpectedly, gone as quickly as they come. Woodpeckers, once a novelty, are now regulars; their usual supply of insects have disappeared with the onset of cold. The red-bellied woodpecker, whose head sports a shocking red stripe and whose wings are an op-art dream of black-and-white polka dots, now regularly gets in fights with the little trash birds, throwing his sharp beak in their direction when they swarm too close.
We knock ice off the bird bath — just a plastic tray on an upside-down flower pot — most mornings now. I make a mental note to research warmers. It’s been 255 days since the boys were last in school. It was a cold day that last day, and it’s cold days again now. Whole seasons inside.
“That’s a dark-eyed junco” the 5-year-old announced excitedly one morning a week or two ago (what’s time anymore?), pointing at a bird that, to my eyes, looked just like the trash birds we get by the hundreds. It was maybe a little darker, its beak a little lighter. Its only distinguishing mark was a little flick of a white tail I never would have noticed. He noticed.
This time I didn’t question him. I just looked it up in his bird book and there it was, exactly as he said, a dark-eyed junco. They only come in winter.