Field Note: Those Aren’t Pine Siskins They’re House Sparrows

by Michael Kleber-Diggs | Contributing Writer

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

Across the street from the house behind my house, there is a house with a hedge row for a fence. I do not know who owns the house, though we’ve lived two houses away from each other for twelve years now. They are chemical-lawn people and hard-salt-the-sidewalk people, and I am barely-mow and shabby-shovel people. I’m sure we’d get along fine. 

This winter I noticed, for the first time, small birds persisting within their bushes, singing all winter. What do they eat? I was standing right by them on an unsalted sidewalk as my dogs troubled every pristine inch of snow on their road verge, trampled it, yellowed it, warmed it up with work for me to do.

“These are the birds,” I thought. “These are the birds that sing all day.”

I looked them up, I thought they were pine siskins, but people who know better urged me away from a rookie mistake. Under the law of parsimony, they’re house sparrows. These birds are brown like me but small; they’re a little paler, beige or so, on their bellies. They are camouflaged well within my neighbors winter-barren bush, brown but thinking green. They do not mind if I—or we, my dogs and I—stand quite close to them, two feet away sometimes. As near as they are to my house, I might have seen them years ago, heard them, enjoyed them all these years, but I noticed them for the first time in 2020.

Here’s what changed: I bought dogs. I sheltered in place and worked from home. My neighborhood became most of my world. 

We got Ziggy (a black goldendoodle) about three years ago now and Jasper (same parents, different litter, merle-colored coat) about a year later. We got them around the time our daughter was preparing to leave for college in what I now recognize was a bout of pre empty-nest hysteria. I had a 9 to 5 south of our house a couple of suburbs, and I was there or out and about most of the time—at a meeting or literary reading, seeing some novelist in town, or some band. When I was home, I was in the house. Eating, reading, cleaning, editing my work or my kid’s homework, netflixing but not chilling, busy. Walking the dogs meant standing outside exhorting them to get busy so we could go back in the house. 

Last March, I started to work from home. In May, I lost my job but kept on working from home—my own work, project work, freelancing. I had more flexibility and walked the dogs several times a day. Real walks. Around the neighborhood in a two-block loop at first, then across the street and into the park for a couple of miles every morning, headphones on—a podcast or a pop song—aware of people and what people were doing, aware of other dogs and dog walkers, oblivious to pretty much anything else. 

I worked from a bedroom-turned-office upstairs with a window facing east looking out on our neighborhood, well shaded under mature oak trees, trees taller than the sun as it rises. For most of the spring, I had the window in front of me open, a luxury I did not know at any office I’ve ever worked in. Everyone was sheltering in place. Cars were so infrequent, you could smell them go by. My day was deejayed by the click of keyboard keys, by squirrels and dogs, by the occasional crying cats or barking dogs, and by birds. Birds I could not name. Birds all morning and well into the day. Birds, singing, even after George Floyd was killed, even as plumes of smoke invaded the western sky, as sirens raged and helicopters spied down morning noon and night, chopping up the peace of everything except the birds.

And other things I missed before. A blue eggshell broken on a sidewalk. A somber squirrel keeping vigil near another squirrel, plump but dead on the ground right by him. The way the days worked that dead squirrel down, my thoughts returning again and again to each day’s toll in our city, our state, our country, other countries. I met neighbors I’ve lived by for years. And once, along an asphalt path decorated with lavender petals, a robin walked beside me, just a few feet away, for several yards. There were fewer cars and people about back then. People could get close to nature, and nature could get close to people.

I’m not a birder, per se. I notice birds sometimes. I especially notice raptors. Sometimes, at night, I hear the call of owls. I’ll usually see a vivid bird, but unless it’s a cardinal or bluejay or goldfinch, I probably cannot name it. I tend to see people.

And so it was this winter, on a day when the temperature was well below zero, too cold for cross-country skiing or long dog walks, I drove north through the park for some errand. I saw a group of people gathered together somewhat, outside, in the very cold, during a global pandemic. I saw the people and wondered what was going on. 

I stopped and approached them slowly, hoping to figure it out then get back to my car which I’d left running. No sense for what transfixed them—ten people or so—huddled together kinda, looking south toward a mid-size tree, quite leafless. My steps sped up a bit and finally I saw it too, a bird so blue it seemed like CGI. Someone in the group identified it as a mountain bluebird, but I’m not sure that’s right. They usually travel in groups, I read. They’re not common in Minnesota. The law of parsimony.

No, I think it was an eastern bluebird, sialia sialis. They are more common here. I read all about them. They like to eat meal worms and seed from feeders. The males are more brightly colored than the females. They are usually associated with the return of spring, even though they sometimes hang around into December and a few return as early as February. I read all about them. I made a note in my journal, including this: bluebirds symbolize happiness.

Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist. His debut poetry collection, Worldly Things, won the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize and will be published by Milkweed Editions in June of this year. Among other places, Michael’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Great River Review, Water~Stone Review, Poem-a-Day, Poetry Northwest, Potomac Review, Hunger Mountain, Memorious, and a few anthologies. Michael is a past Fellow with the Givens Foundation for African American Literature, a past-winner of the Loft Mentor Series in Poetry, and the former Poet Laureate of Anoka County libraries.