As many folks may know from reading articles or blog posts that I have written in the past, my love of nature didn’t develop in normal ways. I always enjoyed fishing, hiking, and camping out in nature, but I never really took much notice of the actual nature I was seeing around me. Sure, I admired a pretty hilltop vista as much as the next guy. I enjoyed the wonderfully fresh air I was able to breathe in. However, I never really paid any attention to the various plants or animals around me. For example, I did possess a mental category called “birds” that included all birds. I may have noticed some different colors or sizes, but that’s as far as it went. All birds were just birds. Same with trees. I saw trees all around me without knowing or caring how different they were from each other.
All of that changed quite a bit for me when I became a Master Naturalist. There was no magic moment when the blinders suddenly crashed to the ground. It was a cumulative process driven by classes, lectures, field experiences, and my own newly found interest in knowing more about the world around me. My wife, Rachel, did not share my newfound interests, but gave me her blessing and let me go out and learn without her.
Then, the pandemic happened, and the world went on lockdown. I was told I could not go anywhere. I couldn’t volunteer with the Master Naturalists. I couldn’t go camping or hiking in the state parks. Life as I knew it had been canceled, and I was pretty much confined to quarters. This was not what I was expecting to happen in the third year of my glorious retirement. I was flooded with anxiety and felt myself quickly spiraling back into a state of depression. I couldn’t just sit back and allow that to happen after all of the progress I had made.
Fortunately for me, Rachel and I had gotten our backyard landscaped with native plants the year before. We had already found ourselves going out there and sitting on the patio more than ever before. We even washed the back windows so we could enjoy looking out upon our little paradise. Shortly after we went on lockdown, I started spending more and more time out there. Sometimes it was just to drink coffee or eat my lunch. I even started to walk laps around the perimeter of the yard like a caged animal. It got to the point that I was actually blazing a permanent trail. Many times, I just sat in a chair looking at the things flying and buzzing around me.
Then, suddenly, I remembered that I had a camera.
I spent the rest of the lockdown teaching myself how to use my Canon camera without setting it on Auto. I attended online trainings, watched several videos on YouTube, and spent way too much money ordering photography books from Amazon. The result of all that was that I started to get some fairly decent pictures of birds, butterflies, bees, and other creepy crawlies in my backyard. I began selecting my favorite photos and posting them on a blog which I called It’s Alive.
In subsequent years, I have taken photos of several different species of birds. I became fairly familiar with my usual backyard visitors and could usually predict when they would arrive each day. For example, one of my favorite visiting groups is an afternoon flock of sparrows that shows up between 1:30 PM and 4:30 PM. It took me a while to realize that there were different flocks that came at different times of the day. I had originally thought it was just one big sparrow feeder free for all.
I usually try to be outside to see that particular flock because they continue to feed at the feeders with me sitting on the patio and the dogs running around the yard. None of the other flocks do that. The morning flock takes off when I open the door and never comes back until I come back inside the house. The mid-day flock lines the bushes and the back fence angrily glaring and squawking at me until I step inside.
On November fifteenth, I had a bit of a shock. I saw a pale blue and green ball of feathers whiz across the yard and land on one of the feeders. To my amazement, it was a beautiful little parakeet that must have escaped from his owners. My first thought was to try and catch it, but, when I opened the door, it took off. I was worried about him surviving in the coming cold weather. I went to the Internet and researched escaped parakeets only to be assured that he didn’t stand a chance and would perish with the first freeze, which was not too far off in the future.
I posted about the parakeet on Facebook and Nextdoor, but the only responses I got were people telling me that he would die if I didn’t catch him. One lady accused me of being intentionally cruel to the bird for being an observer instead of a rescuer. That made me angry and caused some feelings of unjustified guilt which enticed me to pay over fifty dollars to get the bird listed on a lost pet rescue site. That was not exactly money well spent, as the only responses that I got were from the service itself asking me to spend more money to get the parakeet’s information seen in more places.
I finally came to the conclusion that nature would run its course. That’s right. I came to terms with the fact that, if the little guy couldn’t survive the cold of winter, his days were numbered. I made sure that there was always food in all of my feeders so that at least he wouldn’t starve to death. Then I sat back and observed. After the first week, it became obvious to me that the parakeet, which I had now begun to call Woody after a beloved parakeet my Grandmother had when I was a little kid, was becoming an accepted member of the afternoon flock. He only came to my feeders when they did and seemed to be emulating some of their behaviors.
One day, as the afternoon sparrows and Woody were feeding, a Cooper’s hawk suddenly started flying around the yard chasing whatever birds it was closest to. I watched in horror as he chased Woody, nearly catching him. Woody did what all the other sparrows did. He dove down into the cover of the brushy growth in my wild zone. The hawk thought better of crashing after him and flew straight up into the air, barely avoiding a collision with my privacy fence. The whole scene was both amazing and terrifying.
For the next few weeks I continued to look for Woody. Sometimes his flock didn’t show up at all. Other times, he wasn’t with them for some reason. I would worry that he had met his demise until suddenly he would make another appearance. I didn’t worry about him as much when I didn’t see him for a few days.
Then one night I saw the weather forecast for the days leading up to Christmas. We were going to have cold freezing nights with temperatures as low as eighteen degrees. I felt a sense of doom and sorrow building inside me whenever I thought about Woody. Still, I braved the cold and made sure there was food in all the feeders for him every day. The sad thing was that Woody hadn’t been around lately, and I wasn’t sure he was finding food elsewhere.
On Christmas Day, I was standing at the kitchen sink peeling the potatoes for our feast when I suddenly saw Woody land on one of my feeders. I shouted to the family, and we all watched him pigging out on my Bird Buddy Smart Feeder. Some of us had tears in our eyes. It seemed like a Christmas miracle. Woody had survived those long cold nights and looked as healthy as ever. As a bonus, the smart feeder captured his miraculous reappearance on video.
Okay…that was a sweet story, but what does it all mean in the scheme of things? How did an escaped parakeet beating the odds point me towards learning from nature? Well, I did learn a few interesting things from my Woody experience. I learned that, unlike humans, some animal species can get along with each other regardless of the color of their feathers. I learned that even a domesticated pet bird must still have some natural instincts from the past and can put them into play enough to “get back to nature” and learn to survive in the wild. I learned that I don’t have to resign myself to the prophecies of doom and gloom based on what others have seen or learned about the world. I can do my best to “get back in tune with nature” and, just maybe, have as positive of an outcome as my bird buddy Woody.
Jim is a retired schoolteacher. He joined the Alamo Area Master Naturalists with class 41. He enjoys hiking, RV camping, and nature photography. He is currently serving the chapter as the VMS training coach for new classes members.