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Gioia Woods



I’m fine, as long as the birds keep coming. Mostly it’s small finches with yellow or red heads. Pine Siskins, too. They have yellow feathers peeking from under their dun-colored wings. They fuss about using their stout, pointed beaks to pull the seeds they don’t like and throw them to the ground. The cat waits there, below, hoping one will fly into her mouth. Once the cat caught a Lesser Goldfinch. This was right after I’d learned to identify the Lesser Goldfinch. It has a black cape and hood and a bright yellow chest. I learned this after Amy Cooper called the police on Christian Cooper. Mr. Cooper has been a bird watcher since he was 10. He went to Harvard. He created one of the first gay characters in the Star Trek Comic series. He is Black. He is on the board of the New York City Audubon Society. Central Park must have very different birds than the ones who visit the feeders in my Flagstaff backyard. In fact, I’m sure of it, because after Amy Cooper called the police on Christian Cooper, I learned about the Cornell Labs Bird ID app called Merlin. Black Birders Week started five days after Amy Cooper called the police on Christian Cooper. To mark this occasion, the first Black Birders Week, there was an interview on the radio during which the host promoted this app, the Merlin app. I downloaded it right away and began identifying birds. I confirmed the various finches. I confirmed the Pine Siskin. I confirmed the Lesser Goldfinch I pulled from my cat’s mouth. I confirmed the Pygmy Nuthatch and the Chickadee and the Mountain Bluebird and the Dark-Eyed Junco. Then came a Black-Headed Grosbeak and I confirmed it, too. I wanted to build a kestrel box in our yard, but my husband said that although it was beautiful it was a fierce predator. I didn’t want another predator in the yard, what with the cat and COVID-19.

My husband took me camping that week in a meadow. We sat in the middle of the meadow at dusk drinking beer and watching the Tree Swallows dart through clouds of insects, flying at death-defying angles that made me think of circus tricks. My husband said, that’s the kind of bird I would be. Fast and agile and decisive. You can’t be a swallow, I protested, you’re a large man. And you’re a slow-moving guy. Thoughtful. Not very quick to act. (I was careful not to offend him.) What bird would I be? He didn’t hesitate. An albatross, for sure. I couldn’t accept that. Aren’t they burdens? Aren’t they bad luck? They don’t know the poem about the ancient mariner, he responded. You’d be an albatross because you fly a long way without getting tired.

It’s true, I like to travel, especially by myself. I should be in Italy right now, teaching a class on environmental literature. Outside the window of the apartment I rent each summer in Siena there are Barn Swallows, acrobatic and noisy. I watch them in the mornings waiting for a mid-air collision that never happens. They are called rondine in Italian, like the Puccini opera. When I see the rondine blocking my view of the sky I think of the Passenger Pigeon, whose survival strategy it was to fly together in massive groups. In Letters from an American Farmer, de Crevecouer recounts how their “numbers are so astonishing as to obscure the sun in their flight.” He liked to catch them twice a year as they flew past. He did so by luring them close with “tame wild pigeons, made blind, and fastened to a long string.” I’ve read the Passenger Pigeons, although a common food, were delicious. They were hunted to extinction. It was their group mentality that made them easy prey. A short walk from my apartment in Siena is the Piazza del Campo, where city pigeons peck around each morning drinking from puddles of last night’s spilled beer and picking at trash like rubber bands and cigarette butts. I imagine there aren’t many puddles of beer and rubber bands in the piazza now because of COVID-19. But I would still like to be there. In Italy.

The people who love me don’t mind when I fly far away for a long time, because they know how long I can go without flapping my wings. And I always come back to them, and to the news about Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper, and to the small red-headed finches in my back yard. And to the other birds whose names I don’t yet know.

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All images other than author photos and artist artwork ©Matthew Batt 2020