The problem with pretty birds is that they are so hard to ignore.
There we were in our breakfast nook, my wife and I, assailing each other over our oatmeal with our respective workplace obligations, which ought to excuse us from competing childcare duties this afternoon. We hurled the important words of our important professions like stones across the breakfast table. Mediation. Office hours. Deposition. I knew pretty early on that I was going to lose this particular battle, mediations and depositions (whatever the heck they are, exactly) taking precedence over office hours, which I could cancel. But I wasn’t ready to give up so soon. It was a bad mood that I was nursing, which I intended to nurse for at least a few more aggrieved sentences.
But then a painter’s palette with wings over my wife’s shoulder flashed against the sun outside the glass door, uttering silent sentences of its own. Here I am! it cried, alighting on our bird feeder, jutting its cherry chest and throat. Here I am! it cried, pivoting on its perch, showing off its emerald backpack now, munching millet between its mighty bunting mandibles. Here I am! it cried, dipping its whole royal blue head back inside the feeder’s mouth for more millet, seed-hulls flowing from its beak like something molten as it emerged. A male painted bunting, first of the season. Around this time each year, late September, these birds abandon their twiggy, grassy, leafy, cobwebby, horse-hairy, and rootlety nests in north Florida, the Carolinas, and Georgia and stay with us in the warmer subtropics until mid-April or so. So we’ve sort of been expecting him. Yet not now. Not now-now, in the middle of our domestic spat. I wasn’t feeling cherry, or emerald, or royal blue. For crying out loud!
Have they no sense of occasion, these painted buntings? The answer, of course, is no. They don’t care a fig about us or our moods, which is another problem with pretty birds. It’s nicer to imagine, in the spirit of Emerson and Thoreau, perfect sympathy between the realm of nonhuman nature and us. Wallace Stevens, however, probably hews closer to the truth about birds and people in his poem, “Of Mere Being,” when he writes, “A gold-feathered bird/ Sings in the palm, without human meaning,/ Without human feeling, a foreign song.” Though we eavesdrop, shamelessly, the birds don’t sing for us. Our relationships with them, and with most wild creatures, are terribly one-sided. Hardly relationships at all.
Still, it’s not like I could exactly ignore this pretty, problematic bird outside, over my wife’s shoulder.
“There’s a painted bunting at the feeder,” I said sharply, joylessly, as if to say, I’m angry at you. Which is what my wife might actually have heard, as she continued:
“You know I can’t cancel the mediation, honey. My clients are flying in from Omaha.”
“Do you fucking hear what I’m saying, Wendy?!” I had the sense, anyway, to constrict my voice through my windpipe to spare our four year-old from hearing these curses from the family room. “It’s a goddamn painted bunting for Christ’s sake! At the feeder!”
“A male?” Wendy asked, nonplussed, finally hearing the key words through my ludicrous tone and timbre. She pivoted in her seat, glanced over her shoulder out the glass door. “Oh, he’s so pretty,” she said, as if to say, Oh, he’s so pretty, adjusting more seamlessly than I was able or willing to adjust to the morning’s shiny new terms.
The thing is, it’s not merely pretty, the painted bunting. It’s outlandishly, ludicrously, ridiculously pretty. “The most gaudily colored North American songbird,” Roger Tory Peterson writes. Nonpareil, the French name for the bird, “without equal.” Its blue head somehow bluer than blue. Its green back “electric,” opines Peterson. The chest and neck not a mere red or even cherry, quite. Vermillion, rather, smacks closer to the truth. And all three of these colors on the same small bird! Colors so vibrant that the winged creatures do seem electrically enhanced. A Christmas-light bird. Look here! male buntings seem to say. This is what blue and green and red ought to look like!
Hard to fathom that such a bird has evolved over millennia, existed, and exists, alongside scruffier sparrows and finches and flycatchers in North America, alongside scruffier us. A male painted bunting makes you wonder, if you’re the wondering type: Why this particular, improbable animal form? Why these bold contrasts in hue? Why emerald green here, royal blue there, vermillion here? More ordinary, extraordinary curiosities arise, while you’re in a thinking mood: This beak? These wings? These spindly legs and tiny claws? What strange and wondrous forces issue such a creature into being?
Moments like these, when a pretty bird interrupts an irascible mood, I’m reminded of how poor a watcher I truly am, or have become in my harried adulthood. The greater patience of other writers frequently puts me in my place. Like Annie Dillard, who summons spectacular imaginative resources in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to engage with the natural world ever more mindfully. “When I lose interest in a given bird,” she writes in the “Spring” chapter of her 1974 classic, “I try to renew it by looking at the bird in either of two ways. I imagine neutrinos passing through its feathers and into its heart and lungs, or I reverse its evolution and imagine it as a lizard. I see its scaled legs and that naked ring around a shiny eye; I shrink and deplume its feathers to lizard scales, unhorn its lipless mouth, and set it stalking drangonflies, cool-eyed, under a palmetto.”
The male painted bunting sports a naked ring around its eye too, a crimson contrast against its royal blue head. Rarely, however, do I look at these birds concertedly enough to really notice this crimson ring. There’s the person that we are and the person we’d like to be, and the best we can probably do in this life is nudge ourselves, through conscious Dillard-like effort, ever closer to the latter. The other thing we might do is adjust our expectations for ideal selfhood every once in a while, as I’ve done (and as the preservation of one’s sanity dictates). But I still feel that it would behoove me to exercise more patience, more mindfulness, before the actual outdoor world. I doubt that I’ll ever match Dillard’s patience—or the patience of so many other writers whom I admire, past and present—yet I can surely do better.
Wendy and I rose from our seats at the table, stood before the glass door and watched the pretty, problematic bird, outside. What else could we do in the presence of such a visitor? I called Eva over from her puzzle on the family room rug to glimpse the painted bunting, too.
“You see it?” I asked, hoping that her spongy brain would absorb the image before it flitted off into dense cover. She’s just at the age when memories begin to stick. Wouldn’t it be nice if she were able to summon, years from now, this fleeting, feathered vision?
“I see it,” she uttered, nose to the glass, pleased but undazzled. She watched the bird for a few moments, then skittered past my knees back to her puzzle. Okay, maybe. Okay, that for now she felt that it was perfectly ordinary and unremarkable that she shared a world with these bejeweled birds.
Three female buntings—now four!—emerged from the nearby firebush and necklace pod foliage to join the male at the feeder. Pretty in their own way, these females, green ship to stern, a bit darker-dashed here and there, as if these few feathers were dipped in water. If these green and dark-dashed birds were the male painted buntings, say, and female painted buntings were a drab brown, all we’d talk about was the beauty of these small green and dark-dashed birds. But these aren’t the male painted buntings so no one talks about the prettiness of plain-old green and dark-dashed buntingness.
Five females at the feeder now and still this single male. His harem? Why is it, I wondered, that we always see so many females and so few males each year?
The problem with pretty birds is that that they tend to get eaten by other birds. Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, peregrine falcons, merlins. All of whom seem to make a decent living here. Solitary, pugnacious killers. The merlins, especially. I saw one just the other day in coastal scrublands near my home, perched atop a withered sand pine surveying its domain, silencing the nervous warblers and vireos in the canopy below, its slate-gray back and speckled chest puffed up against the salt wind.
It may be that male painted buntings, who surely winter here in equal numbers to the females, are simply more skittish and covert than female birds, given their outlandish, ludicrous, ridiculous prettiness. Their feathers, after all, simultaneously shout Love me, love me, love me! to female painted buntings and Eat me, eat me, eat me! to most everything else, including merlins, including (come to think of it) the ever-expanding band of feral cats in my neighborhood, which rove about most suburban neighborhoods these days, unfortunately.
The problem with pretty birds is that they tend to get trapped and sold by resourceful humans, too. Easy to lure inside wooden cages with “rival” decoys, the ornery painted bunting males. Thousands caught every spring, observed John James Audubon in 1841, shipped from New Orleans to France where they fetched a handsome price. Still taken in large numbers in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, sold at flea markets, some for the cage-bird market, some to compete against one another in underground singing battles. I suppose that such clandestine events are somewhat analogous to cockfights or dogfights, but it’s tough for me to imagine these gatherings in quite the same light. A clan of human malfeasants, drinking and smoking and gambling over the singing prowess of pretty birds? Is it possible that a more formal air perfumes such contests, that men and women don their Sunday finest to listen to the sweet warbles of painted bunting competitors?
Pretty birds, provided they don’t get eaten by raptors or feral cats, or trapped by nefarious humans, entice mates with greater success, thereby increasing their reproductive fitness. You see the tension. Clearly a balance must be struck between these competing interests. Enticing mates. Eluding predators. Most finches and sparrows seem to have it figured out pretty well. Earth tones. A few stripes here and there, a swatch of color maybe at the crown, lores, or eyebrows. Nothing crazy.
Not so the pretty painted bunting.
It might have been a good idea for painted buntings, before people were around to call them painted buntings, to have convened a Council of Learned Elders within the cover of greenbriar or myrtle. A male bunting might have gazed out at his cohorts across the latticework of branches, offered a proposition to the females, Listen, we know you like pretty greens and blues and reds, but we live in a world with Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, peregrine falcons, and merlins. So let’s not get carried away.
But as you say, a female bunting elder might have replied, we do like our greens and blues and reds.
Which might have elicited the following response from a separate male elder: While we cower within these branches, look over at those savannah sparrows frolicking out in the open field there. They didn’t get carried away, see? A bit of rust on the wings. A gray stripe at the crown. And so they can play out there in the open. And look at the good times they enjoy gathering coreopsis and partridge pea and beardtongue and goldenrod-seed. Because they didn’t get carried away with too many flashy colors. You have to be reasonable.
To which a separate female elder might have replied, Even so . . .
Our pretty, problematic bird, this first painted bunting male of the season, fluttered down off the feeder and alit upon a tall blade of grass, more like a reed, tested its rigidity under its modest bunting weight. Wendy and I watched as it skittered up to the top of the reed, which flexed like a bow, as it munched on the seeds bursting from brown, ferny sheaths. I wondered whether it relished those honest-begotten grass-borne seeds more than my store-bought seeds from the plastic cylinder above, whether it enjoyed the flex of the reed more than the stability of the metal perch, enjoyed feeling the impact of its bunting weight in the actual world. I wondered what species of grass, anyway, grew beneath our feeder to produce that seed bursting from brown, ferny sheaths. Probably millet spilled from the feeder-seed.
When pretty painted buntings don’t eat my millet seed—from the feeder or from the feeder seed-borne grass beneath—they eat pigweed seeds and bristle grass seeds, and the seeds of wood sorrel and panic grass and spurge and sedge and St. John’s wort and pine and wheat and wild rose.
It occurs to me that several of the green birds on the feeder that I assumed to be females along with our sole male might actually have been immature males, that the proportion of females to males that I see out the window each season might not be quite so imbalanced. For immature painted buntings, both male and female, sport only the all-green feathers associated with female painted buntings. Gradually, gradually, then all of a sudden, red and blue feathers replace the green on male chests and heads. Even their dull green backpacks turn emerald. Which makes me wonder: do immature male painted buntings know what’s in store for them, that in a matter of months their plumage will undertake a rather dramatic, multi-chromatic transformation? And, if so, how does this bear upon their demeanor with their immature female companions. Do immature males cop attitude as they forage about the pigweed, the bristle grass, the wood sorrel and panic grass. Out of my way! We may look the same now, but I’m gonna be smokin’ hot soon. Do immature females—and here I presume that they too know what’s in store for the boys—cow before the imminent loveliness of their male counterparts, offer a wide berth, or do I have this all wrong? It may be that female painted buntings couldn’t care less about the ostentatious loveliness of their male counterparts. Perhaps they find all the “peacocking” silly—these outlandish blues and reds and greens. Perhaps it’s all they can do to tolerate these puffed-up males. They pair up, perhaps, out of sheer pity or desperation. What else are they to do? It’s not like they can choose the more down-to-earth savannah sparrows or palm warblers or house finches. They’re painted buntings. What I wonder most generally, I suppose, is whether it creates problems for these pretty, problematic birds, the ocular disparity between the sexes.
After all, it’s not like birds are always (or usually) so nice to one another. You don’t have to be the keenest of observers to notice that birds do seem to squabble quite a bit for more favorable perches on trees, electric wires, and feeders. Some of the prettiest birds are purportedly among the most aggressive. The dazzling throats and diminutive size of hummingbirds, for example, belies their ferocity. “Little assholes,” a more experienced birder friend of mine refers to hummingbirds. Further, while most birdsong sounds sweet to our human ears, the truth is that ornithologists don’t know precisely what birds mean to say through their vocalizations. As a character in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King cannily observes, “the birds, whose twitters and repeated songs sounded so pretty and affirming of nature and the coming day, might actually, in a code known only to other birds, be the birds each saying ‘Get away’ or ‘This branch is mine!’ or ‘This tree is mine! I’ll kill you! Kill, Kill!’” It’s probably important to keep in mind that much of what we see and hear as loveliness in birds is of our own willful, imaginative making. It’s a problem.
Something there is, anyway, that can’t deny this imaginative work, my hopeful vision that male and female painted buntings, immature and adult, interact with one another on mostly amicable terms. I like to think, specifically, that males and females alike enjoy a healthy self-regard untainted by haughtiness, that male birds love themselves for their reds and blues and greens and hold their mates just as dear for their duller green dashed with dark, that female birds love their duller green dashed with dark, too, love their mates just as well, but not more or less well, for their brilliant reds and blues and greens.
I like to think that the birds, anyway, have figured things out.
The evidence mostly suggests that painted buntings have done so, after a fashion. When the days grow longer and hotter in their wintering grounds here in south Florida and elsewhere, they light out for more temperate climes northward, seek out brushy roadsides and streamsides, fallow fields and citrus groves, maritime hammock edges and palmetto thickets in places we humans call North Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. A separate breeding population favors Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The painted bunting male sings its “sweet continuous warble,” as David Allen Sibley describes bunting song, bravely from open perches. He courts his mate with great ardor, flashing his bright feathers, bowing and strutting. The female mostly pecks at seeds, unimpressed, or feigning aloofness, but eventually hops toward her suitor to join him in shared purpose. The wings of the male bird quiver with delight. The two set up housekeeping.
Male painted buntings don’t cultivate harems, evidently. They are mostly monogamous. Like people. I guess.
Both the male and female search out potential nesting sites hidden within dense foliage four or five feet off the ground. Sometimes lower. Sometimes higher. The female gathers material for their twiggy, grassy, leafy, cobwebby, horse-hairy, and rootlety nests: mesquite and elm and osage-orange and greenbriar and oak and Spanish moss. She builds the nest alone. But don’t decry the laziness of husbands! He has plenty on his plate. Principally, he defends their turf with great tenacity, showcasing for rival males an exhaustive menu of displays: upright display, bow display, flutter-up display, wing-quiver display, butterfly display. Should such posturing fail, he attacks the intruder, dive-bombing and nipping and pecking. He’ll yank out whole feathers between his mighty bunting mandibles. Again, the behavior of birds, even pretty birds—especially pretty birds—often belies their loveliness. It’s a jungle out there. They can’t afford to be kind to competitors. Enough, maybe, that they are kind to their mates.
The female lays three or four small bluish eggs, speckled with brown and gray. The eggs hatch in less than two weeks. She deposits all manner of buggy food into the ever-gaping maws of the chicks: grasshoppers, weevils, beetles, wasps, spiders, snails, caterpillars, and flies. Unlike most birds—less amorous birds—painted buntings raise as many as three broods per season. Once the female re-nests, the male will feed their fledged chicks.
Yes, it seems to me that painted buntings have pretty much figured out their love business. So brave these gaudy, lit-up birds, who might have donned drab sparrow colors, but chose a more passionate route. Life! Life! Life! painted buntings cry with their emerald backpacks, with their flutter-up displays, with their dive-bombing and nipping and pecking, with their cobwebby nests, and (perhaps most of all) with their sweet continuous warble. John Keats, who would die of tuberculosis at age 25, gleaned in birdsong the indomitable life-force of which he was sorely deprived. “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” he writes in “Ode to a Nightingale.” In reality, most birds—painted buntings included—live very short lives; Wallace’s more earthbound, prose passage on birdsong above (I’ll kill you! Kill, Kill!) offers a corrective, of sorts, to Keats’ unbridled romanticism. Yet I find that my mind seeks out a space somewhere between the romantic and the real when birds flit across my field of view. I’m not willing to give up the notion that these few ounces of feathers and bone and flesh, as Keats’ ode suggests, epitomize life lived full-bore. Life! Life! Life! The problem with pretty birds is that they constantly put me to shame with their bravery, their unwavering self-assuredness, their moxie, their lives lived full-bore. Self-doubt doesn’t seem to be such a big thing with them. “We’re never single-minded, unperplexed, like migratory birds,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes.
I’d like to believe that my perfectly ordinary suburban life is a brave life, too, yet most social indicators tell me otherwise. A timid life, my home-centered life, from a certain vantage. We are still a young country that celebrates new beginnings, new journeys, constant reinventions of the self. “A vagabond wind has been blowing here for a long while,” Scott Russell Sanders declares in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, “and it grows stronger by the hour.” I’ve watched several close friends and colleagues set sail upon this wind for new jobs, new cities, observed these departures with sadness and, admittedly, a tinge of envy and un-birdlike self-doubt. I’m not completely immune to the spirit of our times. It may be why I’m so antsy and irascible with my family, sometimes. I’m not single-minded, unperplexed. It’s a problem. Like Sanders, though, I’ve mostly ducked the vagabond wind, hunkered down for nearly 20 years in the same city, at the same embattled state university. From whence did such stick-to-it-ness arise?
The example of birds probably informed my home-centered inclinations from a very young age. My parents, like many American parents, moved my siblings and me around quite a bit, forsaking the East Coast for the West Coast when I was five. I was just old enough during this uprooting to have felt that it was an uprooting, to have felt that home was something we had left behind, something to recover and hold dear. This may be why I marveled, growing up in southern California, at the story told by several of my elementary school teachers of the cliff swallows’ yearly return to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano. Each year on the same exact day, St. Joseph’s Day, March 19th, townspeople would raise their eyes to the sky to welcome back the cliff swallow flocks from their winter home in Argentina. The swallows would immediately set up housekeeping, constructing their tiny mud nests against the crusty ruins of the Great Stone Church. The swallows knew something essential, something strong enough to hold year after year after year, and on the exact same day (!), something about the power of their home-place.
While I never convinced my parents to take me to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano on St. Joseph’s Day to observe the swallows’ homecoming, I did somehow (and to my continued amazement) persuade them by seventh grade to let me raise homing pigeons in a backyard coop. I constructed the coop (shoddily) with a few of my pals over several weeks before buying my first two pairs of homing pigeons from a local breeder. The old man, who flicked the ashes of his cigarette into his bare palm, explained that I couldn’t release the birds from my coop for their first flight until after they had nested and their first chicks had hatched. If I released them before this time, they would simply fly back to his coop at the other end of the San Fernando Valley, and finders-keepers was the guiding protocol among pigeon fanciers, he advised through a mischievous, mottled smile. Fair warning. “Etiquette” aside, it was an interesting fact about homing pigeons, which remains interesting. Home is where they raise their young.
I heeded the fellow’s admonition and kept the birds in the coop until their first chicks fledged. I still remember the thrill of that first release. Riding our knobby-tired bicycles, my friends and I transported the bird families in brown grocery bags up into the chaparral hills several miles from our neighborhood. (In the years since, these hills have mostly been paved over and developed, planted with stucco and Spanish tile homes, but back then it was wild land, or near-wild land, teeming with rattlesnakes, coyotes, and red-tailed hawks.) We released the birds and sped back home, the sunbaked trails giving way to a long downhill stretch of asphalt road. The homing pigeons, miraculously, were waiting for us in the coop already, their chests puffed up, strutting and cooing. They knew what the swallows knew. Home is where you raise your young.
I don’t raise homing pigeons anymore. Instead, I keep watch for the reliable winter return of songbirds, especially our painted bunting flock. Despite manifold competing factors that vie for my attention—successfully, more often than not, I’m afraid—I still look toward the buntings, these creatures who I know couldn’t care a fig about me, or us, but continue to offer essential instruction, abandoning their twiggy, grassy, leafy, cobwebby, horse-hairy, and rootlety nests at roughly the same time each year to make our home their winter home.
The five female buntings this recent, harried morning skittered off the feeder, eventually, swept up the male below and disappeared into the scruffy firebush and necklace pod foliage. “Guess they’re finished,” my wife said, then sighed. A curious look painted her face. A furrow between her eyes betrayed mild disorientation. The furrow asked, What was it we were talking about? What unpleasant domestic business must we complete this morning? I remembered our business together, our little spat over who would watch Eva this afternoon. I’d like to say that the glimpse of our first painted bunting male of the season put me in my place, immediately, that I stepped up to the rather modest demands of parenthood with alacrity. But I can’t quite make this claim. I conceded the argument, but I could have been a whole lot nicer about it. Only now do I wonder whether my insistence on nursing a foul mood over something so small amounted in the end to the vanity I foolishly project sometimes onto pretty birds, whether merlins of my own making loom over all that I hold dear. Only now do I glance back, in my mind’s eye, from the glass door toward the remnants of breakfast on the table, toward our family room, toys strewn all about the rug like leaf litter, toward our small daughter looming over her puzzle—our panic grass and wood sorrel, our cobwebby nest, our fledgling with her ever-gaping maw.
Header photo of male painted bunting by Steve Byland, courtesy Shutterstock.