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Life’s Funny

In the Twitter Sphere

The making of a bird brain

By Maria Johnson

I keep glancing out the window, stalling over the keyboard, because I want a happy ending to this column.

Nothing earth-shattering. Just nice. Neat. Fitting.

I thought the perfect finale would have alighted by now.

It’s been more than a week. But, so far, zippo.

So, while I’m waiting, I’ll just say this:

I’m an early bird in one sense — rising well before sunrise — but I’m late to join the crowd in the “cheep” seats.

And, frankly, I’m shocked that I’ve arrived at all.

For the longest time, the word bird appeared just before boring in my personal dictionary.

Before I’m pecked to death by my beady-eyed friends, let me say that I’m migrating your way.

Perhaps it was inevitable.

My grandparents were backyard birders.

They maintained a heliport of sorts — a bulbous chandelier of whitewashed gourds atop a tall metal pole, the equivalent of a flashing “vacancy” sign for the purple martins that summered in their small Southern town.

They hosted a bluebird box (an early Airbnb?), cleaning meticulously between tenants.

My grandmother monitored a hummingbird feeder outside her kitchen window.

She watched, waited, studied.

That really stumped me as a kid — all the time spent watching, waiting and studying.

For what?

Birds. Trees. Flowers. With a few exceptions, they all looked pretty much the same to me.

The difference between a sparrow and a wren? Who knew? Who cared — except for the fact that my grandparents seemed happy to see wrens, not so much sparrows?

I hate to admit this, but I think my aversion to birding was cemented by Miss Jane Hathaway, the brainy secretary to Mr. Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies television show.

Miss Jane’s after-hours passion was the Biddle Birdwatchers club, and she regularly appeared in campfire attire, grasping binoculars in search of the elusive yellow-bellied sap sucker or some other rarity.

Miss Jane was seriously funny (actress Jane Kulp won an Emmy for her role) and the epitome of a bird nerd. The stereotype stuck with me.

Still, I found myself mesmerized by the crows that chattered in our backyard, except when they glided silently in and out of a nest they built at the tippy-top of a loblolly pine. Aha, I thought, that’s where the term “crow’s nest” came from.

At the beach, I caught myself trying to discern the difference between sandpipers and plovers, terns and skimmers, ibises and egrets.

Once, on a family walk around Lake Townsend, I was thrilled to see a bald eagle tracing a wide arc over the fish-filled water, which I was pretty sure meant at least two nesting pairs claimed Greensboro as home.

I felt a pop of joy. What the heck?

Still, when I bought bird feeders earlier this year, I did so under the cover of my husband.

I bought him a pair of tube-style feeders and a decorative double shepherd’s hooks for Christmas after he’d admired a similar set-up at a friend’s home.

For Valentine’s Day, I bought him a hummingbird feeder, mainly because it’s partly red and I was desperate for an idea that wasn’t another red golf shirt.

Also, the bird supply store was on the way home.

Also-also, my dad loved hummingbirds, and every time I think of that, it makes me smile.

He came to his hummingbird fascination late in life. In his last years, in his 90s, as his mobility waned, he delighted in watching the feeder that my mom hung on their deck, waiting for the tiny birds to arrive from their wintering spots in Mexico and South America.

“He’s here! He’s here!” Daddy would exult when he finally spotted a ruby-throated male, usually in April. “And look! He brought his little bride!”

I’m sure I rolled my eyes. Maybe I tossed the birds a token glance.

“Yeah, they’re nice.”

I mean, it was kinda cool, how they could move forward and backward and up and down so quickly. How their wings beat so fast — about 20 times a second — that they blurred. No wonder they stoked up on sugar water. They were doing some serious aerobics. Props to the hummers.

My dad is gone now. But my mom still keeps her hummingbird feeder full of sugar water, partly because she enjoys the iridescent show, and partly to remind her of his glee.

Same here. Sometimes, I wonder about the ingredients of his joy. Sure, there’s the pride of being “chosen,” though I’m sure he knew that any ol’ trumpet-shaped flower will do.

Maybe he saw the whole journey — not just miles covered and nectar drunk, but how evolution — a slow dance of time and necessity — had gifted the tiny bird what it needed to survive. He often talked about the miracles under our noses.

Thích Nhât Hanh, the late Buddhist monk, would have called this looking deeply.

Which requires a certain amount of stillness.

Which our culture calls a waste of time or, worse, sloth. That is, until we get older, and time saps our ability to flit away so quickly.

Then we call it wisdom — sitting still long enough to notice differences, getting curious about how and why those differences exist and following those questions.

And so here I sit with my volume of Birds of North America within arm’s reach, next to a pair of binoculars. There’s another window open on my laptop: a migration map at, where local birders report the first sightings of spring.

This is how I know that someone in Old Starmount spotted one earlier this week.

And someone in Willow Oaks saw one last week.

And someone in McLeansville saw two males at the same time — “a double treat to see.”


I sigh, turn my gaze outside, rest my chin on my hand and try to forgive myself for what I’m thinking: Sometimes, this wisdom thing is for the birds. OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Email her at