Marilee Swirczek

Back to: Opinion
May 6, 2014
Follow Opinion

Marilee Swirczek: Nature’s beauty surrounds us, including in sky

The observation of birds may be a superstition, a tradition, an art, a science, a pleasure, a hobby, or a bore. This depends entirely on the nature of the observer.

— James Fisher, British ornithologist

I got hooked on bird watching as a child in northwestern Pennsylvania. Our neighborhood was surrounded by woods full of birds: robins, thrushes, owls, chickadees, wild canaries, and my favorite — the cardinal-grosbeak.

One summer, I found a cardinal with a bent leg flopping around under the hedge. He was all crimson, even his legs and feet, with a black mask and dashing coral-colored bill.

I fashioned a shoebox habitat — sandy soil, twigs, leaves, a bottle cap for water, custom air holes. The cardinal watched through the air holes and whistled when I was out of sight. I learned his peculiar call and whistled back. He recovered, though his leg remained bent, a handy way to identify him, as it turned out.

When I set him free, he stayed. He found a mate and serenaded her as she wove a cup of bark, grass, and string in our cherry tree. They raised four babies in our backyard that summer.

The next spring, I prayed for the cardinal’s return. I set out his favorite foods: sunflower seeds, millet, raisins, bits of walnuts, crumbled cornbread. At dawn for what seemed like weeks, I poked my head outside and whistled, listening hard, my breath rising in puffs.

Finally! A flash of scarlet and that unmistakable call: “Whoit! Tsu! Tsu!” The cardinal returned with his mate and raised another family; his babies and grandbabies came back to the same tree for years after he was gone.

When I moved to Nevada, I hung bird feeders and thistle bags, scattered sunflower seeds, and watched out my kitchen window, fascinated by the Nevada assortment: wrens, chickadees, hummingbirds, starlings, robins, juncos, waxwings, scrub jays, flickers, magpies, quail.

I wasn’t prepared for the prairie falcon. Every morning, dependable as death, it sat on the fence, waiting. Then it dropped, graceful and ruthless, to snatch a bird in midair as it flew to a feeder. It carried its kill to a pine tree and fed.

Pennsylvania seemed so civilized compared with the high desert.

I wrestled with the dilemma. If I were watchful, I reasoned, I could chase the falcon away every morning. If it dropped an injured bird, I would nurse it back to health.

Then I remembered the birds I couldn’t save — robins injured beyond help, bluebirds stiff in the grass after the cat had tired of them — and the bird funerals and Popsicle stick crosses.

So I took down the bird feeders. The falcon resumed hunting in the desert where it belonged.

That was a long time ago. This spring I hung birdfeeders and thistle socks, filled bird baths with water, scattered yarn and string for nest-building. Two scrub jays — with a violent dislike for robins and mourning doves — already claimed the backyard. A red-tailed hawk is hanging around, but I don’t mind. I want my grandsons, 2 and 4 years old, to learn to love watching birds.

I told them the cardinal’s story and demonstrated his distinctive whistle. Maybe we’ll find an injured bird this summer and build a cozy shoebox habitat. Maybe it will find a mate and raise a family in our backyard. And maybe it will come home again next spring.

Marilee Swirczek is professor emeritus at Western Nevada College and lives in Carson City.


Explore Related Articles

The Nevada Appeal Updated May 6, 2014 11:23PM Published May 6, 2014 11:23PM Copyright 2014 The Nevada Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.