Friday, April 12, 2019

Requiem For A Sparrow

querula: giving forth a mournful sound; a requiem.

We sit by the window, cups of coffee cradled, watching the sparrows happily feed. Scout Kremlin had invited me over to see, first hand, the latest in his Brazenly Anti-Domestic Cat Access Technology (BAD CAT). A half circle of hog wire zip-tied to a crumbling wooden fence provides the birds safe foraging and exemplifies the bleeding edge in feline determent.


The 'Zono Zone', featuring a newly installed cedar bench onto which the highest quality bird feed mix is generously sprinkled. The bench provides shelter during inclement weather and allows for safe perching/viewing. A Dark-eyed Junco can be seen on the left side, enjoying a stress-free sunflower seed and eyeing a pile of dried local pears on the other side of the bench.

As we sit sipping and waiting for a Lincoln's Sparrow that he has promised me is a regular visitor, Scout reminds me that the last Harris’s Sparrow seen in Clallam County, in the fall of 2017, was behind this enclosure. ‘It was here for at least 3 weeks. Loved to perch on that lilac branch right there and preen. And then one morning in the alley, I found the trail of feathers. It should of never left the enclosure!'
Scout pointing out the location of the last recorded Harris's Sparrow in Clallam County.
He rattles off a couple of facts concerning the Harris's (biggest sparrow in North America, only songbird to winter in the US but breed completely outside of it) before choking up and quickly looking away. With moist eyes he begins talking about possible colors he might paint the interior of his charming and dilapidated residence. As he drones on about the merits of Eniwetok Peach over Caramelized Ginger, I am whisked away to a far away place and a long ago time. To a graveyard at the edge of town. To the Desert Memorial Park, located at the outskirts of Ridgecrest, California, the place where I first laid eyes on a Harris’s Sparrow...

It was late fall in the Mojave. My 1-year-old daughter and I found the cemetery near the county line. There had been reports of a Harris’s Sparrow lurking in the northwestern quadrant of the graveyard.

We make the right turn off the highway, my little girl lightly snoozing in the backseat. It is idyllic, this moment. Her asleep and angelic looking in the rear view mirror. The solitude and peace of the burial grounds before us. The building excitement and expectation of seeing a bird I’ve never laid eyes on before. I’ve tried in vain to see this species for years, been thwarted and frustrated by each attempt. But I am happy that it is here that we are destined to meet. Long ago it was decided that this was the day. That this was the place.
Upon entering the grounds, I notice two massive piles of whitewash and pellets on either side of the road. Above each of these mounds is perched a Long-eared Owl. Feathered gargoyles. Gatekeeper and Keymaster. Winged shepherds of souls, their pellets and turds forever fertilizing the buried bones beneath their roosts. The worms crawl in and crawl out and are then are eaten by rodents, which in turn are consumed by the owls. The bodies below nourished by the pellets and excrement. The dead fed by the dead.

We slowly pass beneath the owls, unsure if permission has been granted by these sentinels. As we lurk along the perimeter, a Blue Grosbeak, cerulean omen, a bird known to weave rattlesnake skins into its nests, appears on a nearby fencepost. In the rearview mirror I see my daughter's eyes snap open.

We reach the zone indicated in the reports and park the car. I exit, open the back door and lift the little girl out and onto the ground. With her tiny hand in mine we shuffle towards a group of birds near a brush pile. A lone bird is off to the side, taking a dust bath. The Moment is here. It has finally arrived.

In this place, in this strange second, it comes to me that this listing of birds, the drive that sends us to these bizarre corners of the earth, this accumulating of memories is an affirmation of life, true. Of life lived, goals achieved and small victories won. But this moment also carries with it a doppelganger. Something sprouts in the vacuum it creates. Seeing a life bird is a void filled, yes. But it is also a dream vanquished. It is another mile marker passed on the road to our own personal oblivion. With each new bird collected, our own shadow grows longer. Death looms larger.

Finally, the full weight of the bird's beauty hits me and I become unstuck in this existential bardo. Time seems to stop. The massive pink bill, its stabbed -in-the-throat-plumage, the sheer mass of it. The beauty bleeds out from the bird and infects everything around it. The colors of the world burn brighter, the smells of the desert grow more intoxicating. After an unknowable length of time, the world finally dulls and I come out of my reverie and look around. The girl has disappeared. I spin wildly, frantically searching for her. Rows of corpses radiate out from me like I am some hub of death. There she is teetering amongst the headstones. I turn back to the sparrow and steal a final guilty look at it before going to retrieve her. Adorable baby babble as she finds her footing on the uneven ground, righting herself on the headstones when she gets wobbly. I call out to her and she turns to me smiling, chewing something. She has a plastic red berry in her hand and, upon examination, 2 in her mouth. Panicking, I dig them out and worry about the toxic paint she's just eaten, how many she has already consumed. She continues to smile, amongst the fake flowers and graves, newly awake in this garden of earthly oblivion.

The last known Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) recorded in Clallam County, Washington. RIP.

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