by Audrey Carroll

The birds just always seem to know.

As a child on a concrete playground, quiet and isolated in the chaos of voices around me, I would watch the skies. The seagulls would circle only on certain days, swooping down and making a meal out of recklessly abandoned bags of chips. I began to see a pattern, to make a certain kind of sense of the thing. The gulls only ever came on days when it was about to rain. The skies could be nothing but clouds or the sun could be shining, but sure enough their presence was a sign of downpour. I thought, then, that they would follow the clouds inland from the ocean because they followed the water that formed them; this made sense to me. But now I wonder if they were merely escaping the wild winds of the storm to come.

Two days after a national emergency was declared, I saw three turkey vultures, a bird I’d never seen before. Their red faces made them easy enough to research and name. For a little over a year, I had been using bird watching to calm myself, a hobby with no stakes, a hobby that let me look out at the world and remove myself, for a little while, from the place inside of my head where my anxiety lives. Before I even knew what to call them, these enormous birds flew overhead in typical vultures circling death style, telegraphing the decidedly unpleasant nature of their omen.

Normally, the birds I research turn out to be American goldfinches or house finches or house wrens, and I try to memorize the shape of their beak and, if I’m especially ambitious that day, I may even seek out audio files of their calls. Sometimes you hear things that you cannot see. Everything feels like an omen during a pandemic: a national emergency was declared on Friday the 13th, which has never caused suspicion in me except as a birthday of someone who hurt me as a child; and then, vultures on the Ides of March. Sometimes it all feels heavy and laden with meaning. The vultures vanished before long, taking the secret particulars of their portents along with them.

Three weeks into the national emergency, I began to recognize the birds who sang outside of my bedroom window. I couldn’t pinpoint their species, but my unconscious brain had begun to recognize their songs and wake me when I heard them, which allowed me to finally get up before the sun again, something that had proved difficult in recent days. Things almost started to feel normal, like a herald of spring that told the ancients they would not need to worry so much about starvation anymore.

Six weeks into the national emergency, nothing comforted me like stepping out of a hot shower, smelling freshly brewed coffee, and hearing the morning birds sing outside of the window. There used to be a wren that would sing to my daughter from a power cable around this time of morning, but by this point it’d been months since I’d seen any wren at all.

Other birds started to come back, though. The cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, and crows—they’d been around the whole time, a constant in a world that no longer guaranteed such things. But soon the catbirds squawked and the American goldfinches flitted around and the tufted titmice tilted their head as they peered at me through the window and woodpeckers clung to their favorite tree out front. And things begin to feel alive again, somehow. But so many things were missing—weren’t the mourning doves usually around by now? If the birds and their patterns are an omen of something, then doesn’t that mean that missing birds means something too?

The sparrows sang louder as the days went on, more insistent, everything around them becoming green and bright.

A hummingbird paused outside the window one day, staring at me. It had been such a long time since that happened that I was shocked into a delighted stillness. This, I was certain, was a good one.

There was a stretch of time when large ravens would land outside our window and shout into the wind, an omen so classic that it feels a little on the nose. But even as the ravens brought with them a long backstory of death, even as their little faces evoked hauntings of plague doctors’ masks, sparrows were collecting scraps of dried grass to build their nests. I wondered how it could even be possible to build at a time like this, but, in truth, creation can never stop, not completely, even as it seems like everything is shifting and vanishing, even as so much of the world brittles and breaks, still the birds are building.

Image by Domenic Hoffmann via Pixabay