A Walk Through Birdland

Today I am taking my dog for a walk on a remote trail. We jump out of the truck. I turn him loose.

At home I have two dogs, but I only brought one with me. This is Otis Campbell (alleged Labrador), who I can let off leash. He won’t go far.

My other dog is a bloodhound. She is not with me because if you let her off leash she will find a way to make national news.

Otis bounds along the trail, I see his black and white body turn into a streak. He runs far from me so that I am meandering alone.

So much for man’s best friend.

On the trail I meet an old woman in a sunhat, wearing a surgical mask. She is out here watching for birds. Today, she has seen red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, mockingbirds, and starlings. And she swears that she has even seen an oriole. I have never seen an oriole before except at Major League Baseball parks.

“Birds have meaning,” she says in a low voice. “They represent spiritual, universally cosmic truths, about life and death.”

“Would you look at the time?” I say, cheerfully hiking forward. “Have a great day!”

I love birds. I don’t know much about them, but I’m a fan. Probably because they can fly. Then again, I come from country people who were always attaching meanings to birds. A notion I’ve always thought was farfetched.

My mother, for example, used to sit on our porch and watch the pond behind our little house, talking to God. If a certain species of bird showed up on the water, this was a good omen. Likewise, if my Uncle John showed up in his RV, looking for a place to crash for the month, this was a bad omen.

I can hear people talking ahead of me on the trail, laughing. I hear my dog’s collar jingling. I can tell his jingle from a distance. I only pray that he is acting like a gentleman and not romantically involved with someone’s lower leg. He is a boy dog, you understand.

I trot ahead, but I am stopped in my tracks when I see a bird. A cardinal. It’s beautiful. Vibrant red. It is staring at me. When I get farther along, the cardinal follows me, leaping from limb to limb.

My mother would have a field day with this one.

As it happens, I have a long history of wildlife following me. About five years ago, I was out for a walk in the morning when I heard a fast-paced TICK! TICK! TICK! behind me.

I turned to see a large, blue peacock beside me. Keeping my pace. I did not know peacocks were so big, but this guy was huge.

I got so worried that I started jogging. The bird started running with me. When I turned right, he turned right. When I stopped, he did too. And in that moment, I thought I was hallucinating.

Finally, the bird turned into the woods, and I pinched myself several times to make sure I hadn’t been visited by the ghost of Jerry Garcia. Later that week I read in the paper that someone was missing their pet peacock.

My wife has an interesting relationship with birds, too. After her father’s funeral, we were vacationing at Lake Martin to clear her head. It was the worst period of her life. You do not simply “snap out” of a depression that follows the death of a loved one. I’ve been living with the remnants of my own grief for nearly three decades.

I tried to help her through the hard times with a few proven tricks. My primary secret weapon against depression is spaghetti sauce.

I know it sounds silly, but I can—at least temporarily—lift certain kinds of depression with enough spaghetti sauce. My magic ingredient is minced bacon. Lots of it. Also, this recipe works pretty good if you pair it with most domestic beers.

But my sauce didn’t work. I woke up one morning to find that my wife had left the cabin for a walk. I was immediately worried. I had no idea where she was. So I went looking for her, still wearing my PJs and flip flops, shouting her name.

When I found her, she was beside a countryside fence, looking at a meadow.

“SSSHHH!” she said.

She was smiling at a bunch of turkey buzzards who were all looking back at her. Some were squawking.

“That bird reminds me of Daddy,” she said.

I put my hand on her forehead. She didn’t feel hot.

“Sweetie, those are turkey buzzards,” I pointed out.

Even so, there were tears in her eyes. And I’ll be danged if that bird didn’t crow at us.

I have never looked at a buzzard the same again.

I finally catch up to my dog. He is on his back and two teenagers rub his belly. Also with them is the older woman from before, holding a walking stick. The lady is gazing into the bushes. She sees something. She shushes everyone.

“It’s a cardinal,” she whispers. This woman is getting very excited. “Do you KNOW what a cardinal represents?”

“What?” the young man says.

“It means that a wonderful change is on its way,” she says. “A big, big, happy change for each of us, and we could all use a nice change right now.”

“But it’s just a bird,” I tell her. “How do you know it means something?”

The lady winks and says, “How do you know it doesn’t?”

She makes a good point.

13 comments

  1. Christina - June 26, 2020 6:31 am

    I love the sketch Sean and I’m waiting for the nice, happy change too!

    Reply
  2. Marilyn Ward Vance - June 26, 2020 10:07 am

    I’ve heard that a cardinal in your yard is a visitor from Heaven to let you know your lost loved one is okay now. Either is a good sentiment whether it’s true or not! Thanks for the memories, Sean!

    Reply
  3. Celia Bass - June 26, 2020 12:33 pm

    We have a beautiful cardinal that visits our feeders every morning. To think he is a visitor from Heaven is a comfort to me so I always say “ Good Morning Mama!” It may be superstitious or simply a connection to our earthly world, but it provides a happy moment in what is often nowadays a sad, distressing time.

    Reply
  4. Bobbie - June 26, 2020 12:47 pm

    There’s something about cardinals. I love them, and all my backyard birds. There’s something to be learned from birds. They are made equipped to Take care of their little ones as well as themselves. They are programmed by their Creator to know what they need to know. That’s pretty amazing to me. We are too…the difference is God gave us choices. I pray today we’ll all make good choices, be kind to others, make someone’s day…be it just a smile or a helping hand. Thank you Sean for bringing a smile this morning. God blesses us so that we may bless others. ❤️🇺🇸🇺🇸

    Reply
  5. Jo Ann - June 26, 2020 1:00 pm

    My husband & I have several bird feeders in our front yard. We’ve turned into “bird nerds”! We love to sit on our front porch to watch the ones that come by. We can also see them from our living room. We, also, have cardinals every day-Mr. & Mrs. Peaceful & relaxing to watch some of God’s creatures.

    Reply
  6. Robert Chiles - June 26, 2020 2:14 pm

    Ah, birds and messages from the great beyond. Have you ever been to a funeral where they release doves at the grave site? I went to a funeral in Columbia several years ago, and happened to stand beside a fellow who worked at a funeral home. He said, “We used to do that. One time we released about three doves and out of a clear blue sky, a red tailed hawk dove on the doves and devoured them right in front of the grieving family. We don’t do that anymore.”

    Reply
  7. Nancy Laird - June 26, 2020 4:05 pm

    A cardinal visiting you is a loved one visiting you. The cardinal that followed you was your dad following you and showing love. I wish I could see cardinals in the wild where I live; New Mexico doesn’t have them, but I definitely look for pennies of love.

    Reply
  8. Linda Moon - June 26, 2020 4:27 pm

    I’ve been seeing a lot of bluebirds in my backyard lately. I’m not a watcher, but when they happen to fly by I appreciate their beauty. Peafowl at Andalusia Farm are my favorite birds. I think Flannery O’Connor knew what they meant, and just maybe I do too. So, this evening I’ll be cheerfully thinking about birds while eating leftover spaghetti sauce on a toasted bun smothered with cheese!

    Reply
  9. Ala Red Clay Girl - June 26, 2020 4:43 pm

    My favorite bird is the barn swallow because they eat mosquitoes. They remind me of the Blue Angels when I watch them fly around my back porch with their aerobatic maneuvers.

    Reply
  10. AUTigrr - June 26, 2020 6:45 pm

    Hope flies eternal..

    Reply
  11. Sue - June 27, 2020 3:48 am

    “When Cardinals appear, angels are near!”

    Reply
  12. Keloth Anne - June 27, 2020 12:05 pm

    Thanks, Sean! This is excellent. I have always enjoyed watching birds — but with this “staying at home” and COVID 19– my backyard birds have become my best friends and brought much company and a pleasant distraction.
    Your writings are such a wonderful comfort and often enjoyed on my back porch—as I sit on the swing enjoying a cup of coffee with the birds💕♥️
    Much love to you and Jamie ♥️♥️

    Reply
  13. Chasity Davis Ritter - June 27, 2020 11:50 pm

    Do you ever look at the comments and think oh it’s her again? Well it is. Me again… birds oh yes!! Winged things…. cardinals!! My friend Retta loved cardinals. I lost her a couple of months before my Dad and my Sister-in-laws dad. (She sees him as hummingbird). Cardinals always represent Retta and also my father-in-law. Whenever we go see my grandkids (who he never got to meet) there is always a cardinal watching over the back yard as they play. I know it’s him win us. My Dad isn’t a bird but a dragonfly and they are always with us too. My uncle that recently passed (my favorite cousins dad) I think may be a Blue Jay. I’ve seen the prettiest big fat one all over town since he’s been gone. This blog like all your others sure made me smile. (No tears this time) I really grinned about the peacock though that was priceless. And Jamie’s dad as a turkey buzzard. That’s quite unique. I do so love the winged things….

    Reply

Leave a Comment