For the Birds

by Joan Wilking


This is the season when osprey fish the mouth of the river at turn-tide, gulls torpedo clams onto the rocky shore to crack the shells so they can get to the sweet meat inside. Finches and sparrows fight it out to occupy bird-boxes and last year’s nests. I set orange halves out on the deck railing to attract Baltimore orioles but no takers yet. Hummingbirds buzz like bees around a feeder filled with sugar water. The days have been hot and humid. I’m thankful for the breeze. The birds chirp and trill a patchwork of sounds, noise to some, music to me. The air smells of cut grass and the river across the street. Mourning doves coo, waiting for their hatchlings to fledge.

When I was young I was an equestrian. I rode with a dressage team. Dressage was all about precision, schooling an animal to take steps as dainty as a debutante’s. The stable was open on both ends. Swallows nested in the eaves. They built mud nests as efficiently as builders pour concrete. At night, bats feasted on bugs. Owls hooted and blinked at the moonlight.

Out in the marshes an egret steps as carefully as a horse trained for dressage. In the meadow a bobolink balances on a single reed. Cell phones not allowed. Piping plovers build their pebble nests on the beach protected by storm fencing park rangers on three wheelers erect around them. Goldfinches nest in tall grass. A red tail hawk perched on a telephone pole waits for road-kill or a mouse.

A thunderclap sets the birds chattering. I listen, trying to separate the sounds, trying to distinguish what’s what. There’s an app for that my friend says.

The year the mockingbird kept flying into my windows I became phone friends with a woman at the Audubon. Her advice in the end was to do nothing, accept that the bird was going to do what it was going to do, in particular because it was getting drunk on the fermenting grapes hanging from my arbor that Fall. It’s instinct that drives it, she said. It sees its reflection as a threat.

This year and last, when everything felt like a threat, the birds kept me company, their relentless industry. I run my tongue over lips chapped by too much sun. It’s hard to stay inside now that it’s safe again to breathe. At the Audubon sanctuary I buy a packet of seeds. I walk the trails and delight in the chickadees that alight to eat them out of my hand.


Joan Wilking’s fiction and personal essays have appeared in print and online over the years. Her story, “Deer Season,” was a finalist for The Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Short Story Prize. Her story, “Clutter,” which was published by Buffalo State’s Elm Leaves Journal, received a special mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology in 2016. That same year her novella, Mycology, won the Wild Onion Novella Prize and was published in 2017. In March of 2020 she started a series of drawings to chronicle the unique time in history we have all been living through. Four hundred and twenty drawings later, on Mother’s Day of this year, she stopped drawing and started writing again. This story is a piece from her new work.


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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “For the Birds”?

My days start and end with bird chatter when I’m home in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where I live nine months of the year. I live alone. Isolation during the pandemic focused my attention on those sounds and the fact that even when we think we are completely alone we are surrounded by life. An uncountable number of creatures that share the planet with us. The birds just happen to be the ones that make the most noise.


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