Outside, there is a series of quick, staccato chirps. I run to the window with Theo, my cat and quarantine companion. The bird that hangs out in the tree by our front window is back, and he looks sharp with his highlighter yellow feathers and black cap. I know he’s a he because male hooded orioles are a bright lemon yellow, while females are more of a faint mustard yellow.
Hooded orioles are more common to Mexico and Belize than they are to Southern California, where Theo and I live, but in the spring and summer, you can occasionally find them here. They have a distinct chirp that’s blunt and abrasive, like the click of a gas stove when you’re lighting the pilot. Honestly, it’s not a great sound, but it’s helpful if you’re into bird watching.
I was never into bird watching, but the quarantine has sparked this new hobby. It’s probably sparked something for you, too. Maybe you love puzzles now. Or coloring. Maybe you’ve taken up yoga. The quarantine has taken away the endless stream of possibilities of how to spend my day, forcing me to get creative with my entertainment. And this might be the isolation talking, but birds? They’re kind of entertaining.
For example, we have large, football-sized ravens around here, too. At least I think they’re ravens. They could be crows. Ravens and crows are similar, but I’ve learned that ravens are shaggier, stockier, and have pointier beaks. Either way, both of them are more emotionally intelligent than you might think. I once read a story about a flock of crows that befriended a little girl, regularly bringing her shiny objects. Ravens and crows can remember faces, and I repeat this fact to my husband whenever we pass one during our daily walk. He’s always skeptical, but it’s true. “Ravens are my favorite bird,” I tell him. They’re beautiful, smart, and petty—they can hold a grudge. “Pettiness is a quality you admire?” my husband asks. I suppose it is.
Certain times of the year, we even get flocks of red-crowned parrots in my neighborhood. Parrots! You can hear hordes of them squawking in the trees, especially at dawn, and I can hear a few of them in the distance as I type this. Parrots are not graceful birds. They flap their wings anxiously, and they’re loud, but imagine complaining about the noise, which people in my neighborhood do.
These parrots aren’t native to Southern California, and nobody knows why they’re here. There’s an urban legend that they escaped from a pet store years ago and never left the area. They’re an endangered species, with only 1,000 to 2,000 of them left in the wild. We’re lucky to have them squawking awkwardly in our trees. Of course, it’s easy to say this when they haven’t set up camp in your yard. I respect our endangered animals, but I suppose I wouldn’t want to hear a herd of elephants trumpeting outside my window every morning.
Actually, I take it back—that would be perfect.
The cool thing about bird watching is that you can’t really do it wrong. I haven’t downloaded any bird watching apps or purchased any ornithology books or even looked into this hobby beyond my backyard.
Like any hobby, I’m sure there are enthusiasts who will tell me there’s a right and wrong way to watch birds and that I have a lot to learn as a beginner. But to me, the best part of this particular hobby is that you only need to watch and listen and take in the wilderness around you. It seems counterproductive to force your conventions and systems onto it. You can be an expert in birds, but it seems silly to suggest that you can be an expert in watching them. As a novice bird watcher, maybe I’m being naive, but that’s the beauty of being new at something. Theo is the best bird watcher I know, and she doesn’t have any books or apps on bird watching.
The other day, a friend of mine asked what I was working on “before the quarantine,” and the phrase landed on me like a ton of bricks. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the fact that we now live in a world that’s “before” and “after” quarantine. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the fact that there’s a wild, invisible force keeping so much of humanity inside right now. We’re coping with nature the best way we can, and it’s destroying the systems we’ve set up to insulate ourselves from it—yet we’re still drawn to it.
It’s a difficult and complicated time, but it’s also an incredibly simple time. In the after-quarantine world, one of the most philanthropic things you can do is order takeout. “Okay,” I think. “I can do that.” But a few minutes later, I wonder, “Are you sure? What else can I do?” I’m human, and I want this to be about me. But it’s not about me, and it’s not about you. This whole thing is about us—collective humanity. We’re in this together, and the best thing most of us can do to save ourselves is, well, nothing.
We can be patient and hope for the best. We can give back when we can and appreciate those who don’t have the luxury of social distancing. We can look out the window and find something to make this dark time a little bit brighter.
For me, it’s birds.
Readers, what’s your brighter thing? What’s keeping you occupied and entertained during this dark and bizarre time?
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