A moment after the house sparrow flies off with the big feather in his beak, a small male Cooper’s hawk swoops in and lands on the wooden gate, not two feet from where the sparrow sat with his find. This bird always stops my breath, the marvel of his arrival. Today he holds still, his strong talons clutching the tops of the faded redwood boards. He swivels his head, his sharp eyes taking in small movements in the courtyard. He makes the small chirping sounds I love, the ones that feel like conversation or commentary, the ones that make me want to speak bird. I talk to him through the screen door, and he tilts his head to the side as if he’s studying me through the glass. Then in one quick motion he glides below the edge of the gate and is gone.
I’m just getting up, sitting up in the middle of my bed. There’s a small bird perched on the top of the wooden fence outside my sliding glass door. His back is to me, and his stance looks awkward, as if he is a bit off kilter. It looks like there’s something in his mouth. He repositions his feet on the rough wood, turns himself around. I see he is a house sparrow, a big grey and white mourning dove feather held in his beak with a firm grip. It’s so surprising I almost laugh out loud. He looks like that notecard I bought online from Pomegranate, the one I love so much I bought a second box, a colorful illustration of a bird with a feather as big as he is. I’ve never seen a bird carrying such a big feather, not in real life. I sit here grinning at him. He fidgets a little more, repositioning his feet again on the fence. Then he flies off across the courtyard and disappears with his treasure.
“The pine tree is coming down in two weeks,” my landlord yelled at me. He was angry with me at the time. I’m hoping he didn’t really mean it, doesn’t follow through with his threat. Our pine tree has been through so much. She should never have been planted in this desert to begin with. Fierce wind took more than half of her away before I came. She was haggard, drying, teetering, it seemed, brushing close to death. But she rallied, and now the shade she casts is doubled, maybe tripled. And the spots for birds to perch or shelter have multiplied, as well. I pray she’ll be protected, pray she’ll thrive. I would hate to see her taken, a mean recompense for having grabbed onto life with such grit, such gusto. I’d be afraid, too, losing her would mean losing even more of the birds who like to linger in our little corner of the world.
Already there are fewer birds here than before. The bulk of the house sparrows have disappeared again, and the doves don’t fill the tray feeder in the mornings like they used to, all packed together, a picture I never did capture properly, all those pretty bird butts ringing the wooden frame. When I first began to notice their absence, in my usual fashion, I wondered if it was because of me. Had I been found wanting? Later, I considered other possibilities, but my first thought was I had not been enough in some way. Could it be the desert rats, cute little guys with big dark chocolate eyes, who eat the remaining seeds in the night? Do they eat bird eggs? Attack birds? I don’t know. I worry, too, it is because I switched to the cheaper bird seed. My new attempts at being frugal and the fact I can bring the twenty-pound bag home from True Value on the back of my bike has me using the dull, dusty feed with cracked corn and milo.
In Hopland I bought a hundred pounds or more at a time and blended them myself. It was cheaper that way, but it was a big procedure, up to my armpits in the plastic bags to mix them. But I loved the way the seeds moved through my fingers, rich with oils and colors. In Ajijic, I could walk to the next block over and buy my bird seed from my favorite tiendita there. They would scoop up the alpiste and weigh it in a plastic bolsa. I could get just half a kilo at a time, stroll home with it, so easy. I miss that. I always suspected folks were cooking with it, too, but I never asked. I know it can be used to make atole, a common hot drink, a comfort. But I trust many of my neighbors were feeding it to their birds, as well. On my block and the next, I would hear the exotic birds calling from the entryways of homes as I walked by. I didn’t know alpiste was canary seed until I moved back to the United States and went hunting it down for my bird seed blend.
I had sparrows in Ajijic, too, though never more than three or four at a time, and one dear hummingbird with a feather out of place. (He was the hardest to say goodbye to, after Ana and Rodolfo. I cried when I took his feeder down and left him with a paper cup of sugar water. He sat on the wire and watched me for a long time.) There were no trees on my block there, no real shelter, but still the sparrows would materialize at the tray feeder, eat the alpiste, chat among themselves. I’d sit on my veranda looking at the lake and listening to their quiet exchange.
Now in my courtyard I think again about buying a more expensive seed blend. Maybe I’ll offer it as a special treat from time to time. Or maybe I’ll begin winning more writing contests, left and right and left again, and I won’t even blink at the idea of returning to the rich, pretty birdseed my birds here became accustomed to. I hear the house sparrows behind me now, soft, muted, rounded sounds, satisfied from a midday snack, enjoying the shade of the pyracanthas and the cooling mist the dry, hot wind wafts their way in small puffs.
The sun reaches my feet, burns my right arm and hip as I write, but I keep going, leaning, crooked, toward my remaining shade. I remember the quiet chatter from my sparrows in Ajijic. I relish them in memory even as I savor the soft murmurs behind me now in the hedge. And even though the heat is still climbing, and even though I have much to do still as the day unfolds, I stop, linger, feeling oh so lucky, loving our little desert courtyard, this small oasis on a hot, busy day.