Monday, May 20, 2013

prothonotary warbler

THESE ARE THE BIRDS we saw on our last trip to Louisiana:

Roseate Spoonbill
White Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Great Egret
Cattle Egret 
Pileated Woodpecker
Blue Heron
Tree Swallow
Turkey Vulture
Purple Martin
Blue Jay
House Wren

     Goldfinch gets an asterisk because we didnt actually see any goldfinches. We just thought we did. At sunrise on Saturday morning my dad and I were in the pirogue raising his catfish lines when we saw two little yellow birds in the chicken tree arching over us. He tugged on a line hanging from a low branch, and the two birds flew away.
     It’s not unusual to see little yellow birds in Louisiana this time of year. I’d always assumed they were goldfinches, and so did my dad. I said, “Did you see those two little yellow birds?” “Goldfinches,” he said. And we went on thinking they were goldfinches until one of the birds showed up dead on the porch later that evening.
     This is what happened. My dad was frying catfish on the porch when he found a little yellow bird lying on its side, claws curled, on the arm of a rocking chair. (We’re always finding colorful dead birds on the porch like that. They fly into the reflection of the picture window and break their little necks.) My dad said, “Did y’all see that yellow bird on the rocking chair?” We hadnt.

     I picked her up by her tiny legs and placed her belly-up on a sawn stump we use as an outdoor table. The whole head and breast of the bird was yellow, so yellow it was almost orange. Her wings were gray, and the underside of her tail was white. A goldfinch, I learned from the bird guide, has a band of black running down the center of its face, from the crown to the tip of the beak. This birds head was all yellow: a prothonotary warbler. I snapped a few photos with my phone, and when the breeze started fluffing the dead bird’s downy breast feathers I switched my camera to video.

     Then we went inside and ate dinner — crawfish étouffée, asparagus, fried catfish. Andrew was eating facing the picture window, and when he said, “Oh my God,” we all turned to see what was out there. A little yellow bird was perched on the porch railing, staring and chirping at his dead yellow friend. “Why arent you moving?” he seemed to chirp. “Why can’t you fly anymore?”
     I walked closer to the window, stepping as quietly as possible, and crouched on the floor for a closer look. We were all startled to see the little bird fly down to the stump and start pecking at the dead bird’s face. When that didnt revive her he started jumping up and down on her. So frantic were his attempts at resuscitation that he knocked her to the floor. She landed face-down on the porch. Then he started nudging her with his beak, moving her across the floorboards, rolling her over and over. Thats when my heart broke. I’d never seen a bird grieve before.
     I should have taken the dead bird down to the garden right away and buried her under a stone. Instead I put her back on the stump and went to sleep. I guess part of me wasnt ready to put her in the ground yet. When I looked out the picture window the next morning I couldnt believe it. The little yellow bird was back, pacing across the porch, hopping, hopping, chirping, pecking at his dead yellow friend, still trying to make sense of it all.
     “That’s why we bury things,” Andrew said. “You need to go bury that bird.”