Jan. 31, 2013
I saw the bluebirds today.
It surprised me, as it’s a colder day with a strong wind quickly burning any exposed skin (my cheeks bear the evidence), but still. There they were, in the corner where birds gather on the chilliest winter days. The corner where the wind doesn’t dare to venture down out of the high branches.
The usual suspects were all on the lookout for trespassers. Sociable chickadees flitting in the nearer branches, while a flock of robins watched from higher up. Red-tailed hawks keeping low to the ground. A couple of fat cardinals. A red-bellied woodpecker trying his darnedest to keep out of sight on the opposite side of a tree. And of course, the background noise of Canada geese on the ice, huddled together and complaining at the top of their lungs.
But the bluebirds were a surprise.
When I was a kid—maybe first or second grade, same’s the Little Bird—I went through a sleepwalking phase. I don’t remember it. (Do sleepwalkers ever remember why they roam the night?) But I’m told that occasionally I would wander into whatever room my mom and dad were sitting in, walking deliberately, barefoot in a lace-edged nightgown, hands cupped in front of me as if I were cradling something important there.
Now, they say not to disturb a sleepwalker and they’ll eventually wander back to their pillows and blankets. But I guess curiosity got the better of them, because one night in the midst of my perambulations, my mom asked, “What are you carrying, punkin?”
“It’s a nest. And I have to protect these eggs.”
Last summer, on what would turn out to be the hottest day of the year (103 in the city itself, but even warmer out here in the burbs), I went out for a walk of…oh about 45 minutes.
The air was thick with heat. Breathing feels more like drinking on a day like that. Some foul slurry mixed up from every bottle under the bar, just like when you were a teenager trying to have a drunk without the folks finding out. To be honest, it probably was a little too hot to be out without water. But I figured I wasn’t going far from home.
At about the halfway point, I was walking along a side branch of the DuPage River, when I stumbled upon a Great Blue Heron, just hanging out in the water. We gave each other a good hard look. I could tell he was thinking of flying off, but in that heat, the poor fella just figured, what the hell? After a minute or so, he turned back to his business. Poked his head down at the mud and came up with a beak full of frog.
Sure enough, by the time I was about 10 minutes from getting home, I started feeling the danger in the heat. My fingers got swollen, and I started dreaming. I had to keep shaking myself, reminding myself to go home. Once there, I took a cold shower and replenished the water supply.
Obviously, I was fine. In fact, the heat did a nice job of lubricating up the joints that had stopped working right and for the rest of the day, I felt quite well. Better than I’d felt in a long time.
I think that was the day I learned to love the heat like I’ve always loved the cold.
This morning, the weatherman said that the wind chill was making it a frosty -3 degrees. And I have to admit I thought twice—maybe even three times—about subjecting my bones to such a chill.
But there’s a touch of snow on the ground—and we’ve had a dearth of snow this year—and the thought of seeing my favorite trees and weeds with a nice dusting of white proved to be temptation enough to send me digging through drawers for extra woolly kneesocks and long underwear. I layered and layered and layered. Wrapped my face in a handspun scarf made from the fleece of Merino sheep and baby camels—nice and toasty. Put a hat on over my hat and headed out the door.
It was in that corner I mentioned—where all the birds go on days like today—and I was watching the chickadees, wondering how they could still be so playful in spite of the wind, when I heard it. Just those quiet, subtle dropping notes.
And I knew it was the bluebirds.
Like robins, bluebirds hang out here all winter long. Once it’s spring, they’ll head off to set up house as couples, but in the winter, they flock together. Often, on really cold days, you’ll find them all smooshed together in the nesting boxes…sometimes 20 birds in a single box.
But today I heard them. And being bluebirds, I knew that if I heard them, I could see them, with a little attention and patience. And sure enough, there they were. Two males and three females, winking blue wings at me.
By the time I got to the turnoff, where I’ll usually make a detour for an extra mile of walking along the river, my legs were just numb. So, like that too-hot day, I decided to turn off and head back to the car.
Back in the warmth (I cranked the heat soon’s I got in the door…I figure I deserve it), contemplating a simmering pot of leek and potato soup with a wooden spoon, I keep thinking about those birds, hunkered down out of the wind. Wishing I could cradle them all in my hands and carry them in out of the cold.
I guess I never did stop sleepwalking.