September 4, 2020
I start my journey into the blogging world with a tentative first step, much like a toddler beginning to walk, or a baby bird breaking out of its shell. My love of birds started when I was a toddler, or perhaps even younger, and I, like many species of birds, have migrated often since then.
I spent my first year of life in Kosovo as it was recovering from the Balkan Wars. I was there because my father was the head of a war relief office for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). My first flight was from Nashville to Prishtina, Kosovo; I was less than three weeks old, about the same age that the ubiquitous house wren makes its first leap of its nest.
I am told that my crib in our apartment in Kosovo was pushed up against a window, and outside that window trains of pitch-black jackdaws would blot out the sun. Their cacophonous calls were legendary, but I assume that as a baby they were just the background music to which I would fall asleep.
Birds have played a powerful symbolic role in Kosovo.
After Yugoslavia crumbled as the Soviet Union also met its demise, Serbia claimed Kosovo as its own. Kosovo’s ethnic Serbians, who were Orthodox Christians, wanted to stay with Serbia, but its’ ethnic Albanians, who were mostly Muslim, wanted to create an independent Kosovo. Much of the debate about who deserved Kosovo centered around stories told about the history of Kosovo. The Serb’s claim focused on the Battle of Kosovo, when the Serbs fought against the invading Ottomans, in 1389, 604 years before I arrived. The jackdaws must have been around a while, because of the battlefield is known as the “Field of Blackbirds,” named after the jackdaws that scavenged the carrion left from the battle. The Serbs viewed Kosovo as their hard-won heritage, and even the name Kosovo comes from the Serbian word Kos, meaning blackbird. The ethnic Albanians, meanwhile, claimed a heritage going even farther back in time. It is all so hard to untangle who was where when, as people moved back and forth between borders that didn’t even exist back then. Although then flow of migratory humans is not so recognizable from the ground as the flight of birds, my early love of birds made clear to me how silly some of the fights about borders are, especially as the birds sail over borders and walls so easily.
When I was a bit more than a year old, I was evacuated from Kosovo because of a needed surgery. I never returned. My family soon settled in Alexandria, Virginia. My place at our new kitchen table looked out of a window, and right outside the window, my mom hung a bird feeder, hoping to recreate the feel of Kosovo for me. Soon, thereafter, we again moved, this time to Chicagoland, and, again, a bird feeder was hung outside of a window immediately in front of my seat at the table. Throughout childhood, I must have sat for eight hundred hours watching birds as they ate while I ate. Eventually, birds got the better of me, and I started actively seeking them out.
Out of my high chair, and into the world.
I am fascinated by birds’ myriad shapes and plumages, how each bird is like a canvas for a painting made of feathers. Every painting is unique, but there are commonalities and groupings to be made as well.
Finding and identifying a bird is a truly gratifying experience — finding a key piece to nature’s jigsaw puzzle — and watching each bird brings me closer to the natural world. I admit that in viewing birds, there is a thrill of the hunt, but not to harm them or control them, but rather to hunt down what ecological niche each species occupies and how such species came to be what it is today.
William Carlos Williams once wrote in the poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” that “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow.” To me, nature is my poetry, raising as many questions as it answers. When I look at a cardinal I wonder if there is a story behind why it is red. When I look at a heron, I wonder why it has such long legs. And when I look at the chickadee, I wonder how it developed its two-note song.
There are many amazing things about watching birds, but the best for me is that it allows me to take time to let my curiosity wonder and for me to ponder the mysteries of nature. Birding allows me to connect with others and the world. However, in this time of isolation, I feel disconnected from the world and from the birds I love to see.
I hope that this blog helps me to start the process of thinking about journeying out again into the world, tentatively, one step at a time (with a mask on and at least six feet apart!), like the baby house wren attempting to gain the courage to fly out of her nest.