Field Note: City Birds

by Jennifer Chang | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of Poetry Northwest’s “Life List” feature.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, the city had become quiet enough to notice how varied their songs were in the mornings. Or I had become quieter. Schools had abruptly closed, and the shops we passed in and out of throughout the week for coffee, burritos, or the one item we’d forgotten at the grocery store (lemon, knob of ginger) stayed dark, CLOSED signs hanging in the doors like trapped ghosts. I felt an inner paralysis, and perhaps this is what led me to finally learn that the bright bickering I heard outside my window every morning belonged to sparrows. Finally, finally, I heard them, the sparrows. Against the silence of our shuttered city birds thrived and had always been thriving. It took a lockdown for me to finally notice.

For years I thought I knew birds because I read poems. I had known sparrows because of Yeats and William Carlos Williams. White-throated sparrows appear in Elizabeth Bishop’s “North Haven,” a poem I remember mainly because it is about another poet. When I first started writing poems, I complied, placing “sparrow” on a line only to revise it later to “wren,” as if I knew the difference. I loved birds, so I believed, could distinguish cardinal from blue jay like a grade school genius, but birds were a literary trope and, for me, merely perks of diction. What I loved was words, and the names of birds were like the names of flowers, a way to give texture to the language of a poem.

My older child had become interested in birds long before the pandemic. He liked to draw and took from my shelves Birds of North America, so that he could copy their unique forms into a notebook. I had bought the book in graduate school believing it would be useful for writing and then rarely used it. This was the book he turned to one morning when I tried to point out the pigeon on our back porch. Schools had recently closed in mid-March, and we had taken to lingering at the kitchen table, where we could gaze out of windows and to our neighbors’ rooftops, the sky. But the bird we were looking at, who was looking at us, was not a pigeon. He noted the mild blush on its gray breast: it was a mourning dove. My older child liked that I was wrong; I liked that he knew something I didn’t.

And this is how it began. It was spring, and my children knew more than I did. At the kitchen table, we could also see down to the alley below. In much of D.C., alleys bind together two streets like a spine, making our street and the street parallel a discrete social body. Here the life of our neighborhood bustles and lulls depending on the weather and our moods. We watch our neighbors take out trash, tend their patches of yard. We wave from our back doors and driveways and, especially during the pandemic, can’t help but learn each other’s routines. The alley is where children play tag, scooter and bike, and push together garbage cans to make a finish line. The alley is our field, a wide concrete expanse that swallows the rain and gives us space for wandering. Every morning during the pandemic, we’d notice crows lining telephone wires. One neighbor’s honeysuckle became home to a robin’s nest, and for weeks my children and I stalked its progress until one day their tabby struck down the mother and father. What happened to the babies? we asked Matt, whose patch of yard hosted this violence. Gone, he said, unconcerned that my children would soon go wild with interpretations. Gone as in death or migration or, most brutal of all, indifference.

We had more time than we knew what to do with those nervous early weeks, and so once my children and I got out of Zoom school we’d drive to this river or that river, to parks distant and nearby, armed with copious snacks and my bird book. I had found kid-sized binoculars online and borrowed an old Nikon from my father. The official bird of Washington, D.C., we discovered, is the wood thrush, and to see one became our family goal. These were hours well spent. We never found the wood thrush, though there were catbirds, swifts, flickers, and turkey vultures along the way, and there were mistaken sightings and many birds too obscured by leaves to identify with certainty. The first time I saw and could name a starling I realized it was neither ordinary nor mean, though I’d written that once, besotted by its name and the fiction I’d made. In the gentle speckling of its midnight plumage, I saw a reflection of the night sky and saw how very little I knew about words or anything.

Words were useless those days when we had nowhere else to go and could not adequately explain to our children why they could no longer see their friends. Why playgrounds were suddenly off limits. Why visits to grandparents had to stop. Why none of us could sleep. Time elongated, became unrecognizable as we struggled to navigate what has now for many become almost normal. Our work lives, our children’s wellbeing, our incessant stasis—how these withstood days vague with grief, fear pulsing soundlessly, I don’t know. Somehow we kept going and keep going.

The thing about birding is that it can happen anywhere. Birds are neither scenic overlooks nor poetic devices, but they are a gift to careful attention. To see the house finch on a rain gutter is to be willing to receive the world as it is. In stillness, we subject ourselves to our environment. In stillness, I silently beg the trees to welcome me. I whisper to my children not to disturb the birds, the squirrels, the neighbors in their everyday activity. Let them be.

My older child loves that differences in birds are fundamental to identity and thus unquestioned. A bird is either male or female, according to Birds of North America, either grosbeak or warbler; identities, unquestioned, are entirely their own. I think this may be one reason why he has been enchanted by birds. Almost eight, he has always been questioned about his gender, and it has only been recently, in these months at home, away from classrooms and human society, that he has freely embraced his own innate fluidity. Yesterday he was a red fox in orange knee-high socks, today a princess with a lion’s head; tomorrow, draped in borrowed silks, he will be the west wind headed to a meteorological gala. Each time he announces himself, I hear in his voice the delight of conviction. Diction’s perk lies not in peculiarity but in precision. In the alley, boys who look like “boys” swarm and wonder about my older child, and like a bird, he pays them no mind. Their questions are nowhere near as important to him as sighting a wood thrush, an event that he never doubts will not happen.

In this, the birding that haunts my poems is mundane and accidental and yet contributes to a heightening of attention that keeps me from living a mundane or accidental life. If I do not pay attention, I will not know what details, what creatures, what lives I’ve overlooked. Clouds of geese signaling the autumn sweep of migration. Every bird, a potential mythology—is that a swallow or Icarus plummeting from the sky?—or a potential eagle. According to local birder gossip, an eagle’s nest was spotted in Cleveland Park, off Connecticut Avenue.

When I thought the birds singing outside my window were just birds, I was taking for granted my proximity to otherness. Some days I forgive those boys for asking of my child “what is it?” Some days I forgive myself for careless language. Careless language unchecked can become cruelty. What I’m trying to understand is what careless attention becomes. Is it cruel to not notice, cruel to think you’ve seen all there is to see?

To know what you don’t know, to face your ignorance plainly, to knock down your own authority, to shut up already and listen: this is the work of attention, uninflected as the infinitive, mystifying as infinite. It might be the most basic way to exist. I don’t want to be overly grand and claim that this is the poetics that birds have led me to. However, the birds that appear in my poems convey not distraction but a dispersal of attention, away from the self’s situation and towards the world beyond. That world is specific, unfathomable, and, yes, of greater consequence than the poem’s subjectivity. It is a world I do not know, though every time I listen to the noise outside my window I am asking to be a part of it.

Jennifer Chang is the author of The History of Anonymity and Some Say the Lark, which received the 2018 William Carlos Williams Award. She has new poems forthcoming in American Poetry Review, The Believer, A Public Space, and Yale Review, and her essays on poetry and poetics have appeared in Blackwell’s Companion to the Harlem Renaissance, Los Angeles Review of Books, New England Review, New Literary History, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Asian American Literature and Culture, and The Volta. She currently lives in Washington, DC, but will soon be moving to Austin, TX, to begin teaching at the University of Texas this fall.