This weekend the Cornell Ornithology Lab and the Audubon Society sponsor their annual Great Backyard Bird Count. I participate every year, making notes on a yellow legal pad at my desk, from which I have a view of my bird feeders, a bristly clump of coneflower seedheads, and a little dogwood planted two years ago.
This year, my family held a bird count in honor of our Aunt Monnie, our favorite bird watcher, who died on her 110th birthday, Jan. 17th. Officially, the bird count was the weekend of her funeral, Jan 22nd through Jan. 25th. Unofficially, we all started the moment she died, and kept going for some time after she was laid to rest.
It was a great count. My father wrote on Jan. 19th: "our yard had a pair of blue birds about thirty minutes ago ............SPRING,,,, wonderful spring" (his own exuberantly idiosyncratic punctuation, entirely typical).
On Jan. 22nd, the morning we left Kansas City to drive down to Arkansas for the funeral, I had a pair of wrens, a pair of cardinals, and a pair of downy woodpeckers in the garden. There was a baffled starling, frustrated by the upside-down suet feeder. Two young male flickers showed up, and the front yard was full of robins.
The drive south through Missouri to Fort Smith rolls through mostly agricultural landscape, but there are some dramatic hedgerows of writhing osage orange trees and many marvelous oaks, with the fullness of free-standing trees in the open country. Dusky cedars colonize the roadside in some places; the gleaming, polished trunks of sycamores leap up out of the creekbeds. Last year's birds' nests are easy to see at this season, and the bare trees provided fine outlooks for hawks -- sharp-shinned, red-shouldered, and red-tailed -- surveying the stubbled cornfields. We thought we saw a couple of kestrels, my favorite falcon.
On Friday morning, we drove in two cars from Fort Smith to Morrilton, where the funeral was held. It is about a two-hour drive, and we expanded the scope of our list, writing down native plants and not-so-wildlife: we made dutiful note of the brown cows, huddled in the lee of round bales of hay. Brilliant possomhaw hollies, loaded with berries, sparkled in the hedgerows. We counted crows, a dead opossum, and some paint horses, and stopped for coffee.
The pecan trees were marvelous in Morrilton. The husks of last year's crop, splayed open at the tips of branches, looked like brown stars. There were pecan trees outside the church and in yards all along the way to Elmwood cemetery, which is on the other side of the railroad tracks. There my father counted red-wing blackbirds, sparrows of every ilk, chickadees, and mourning doves. I heard a woodpecker but could never find it, somewhere up in the oaks.
I had brought along a big Mason jar full of birdseed, and after the service we invited everyone to sprinkle some seed around my aunt's grave. We had two Catholic priests working this funeral, and they both did their bit, and everyone got at least a little handful. It was cheering to toss the seed about, just as Aunt Monnie used to do around the patio at her home. She would have had a little cornbread for the mockingbirds.
After a quick lunch we went back to the cemetery to plant a couple of daffodils around Aunt Monnie's tombstone. It had been a long time since we were all at the cemetery together, so we visited my great grandparents, and contemplated the big iron cross by Colonel Anderson Gordon's marker, and at the last we left a large bunch of Alstromeria that we had needed for the lunch table on the fresh mound of red clay over Aunt Monnie's grave, saving a few flowers for my grandparents and my mother's sister. On the way out of the cemetery, we saw a flock of birds I didn't recognize, but that my father knew; Meadowlarks, he said, maybe 10 of them, the first I've seen, with a characteristic flash of white in the tail.
Our bird count accumulated on scraps of paper and, after we all flew back to our own nests, continued in e-mails: titmice, goldfinches, blue jays, brown thrashers, nuthatches, juncos, and red-bellied woodpeckers were added to the list. My father wrote that the two cats had seen a few birds, too, but they did not make a list. Just yesterday, my sister Cynthia sent an entry from South Carolina:
"I am not great at identifying all but the most distinctive birds. We had some little chubby brown sparrows pecking at pecans which had cracked open when they fell onto the brick terrace. They were really cute and determined. Bluebirds recently checking out the boxes and one perched on the front porch newel, momentary lord of the front garden. A little flock of Black capped, or Carolina chickadees were all over the wren box which is 9 feet off the ground, nestled in a post bracket of the carport. Flocks of robins and starlings, the latter descending with a clatter. A tufted titmouse looked at me only for a moment from three feet away before deciding that I was not to be trusted. There are oodles of finches doing acrobatics on the 'upside down' feeder. They are gray/brown not much color this time of year. Mourning Doves are scouting underneath the feeders and plenty of brown squirrels helping with the clean up. Oh and our neighborhood hawk, most likely a red tailed was sighted yesterday. There are lots of other birds, too, but don't ask me what they are. I have been refilling the feeders every other day."
Before we left Fort Smith, my sisters and I divided up Aunt Monnie's old Navajo jewelry, pieces she had collected since the 1930s. There were all kinds of necklaces and bracelets, and, in the end, a few things we weren't sure what to do with; I took one of them, a silver medal embossed with a Thunderbird. I threaded the little piece onto my keychain, like a charm on a bracelet -- a small fetish, but a mighty bird -- its heart decorated with a smooth piece of turquoise, robin's-egg blue.