This afternoon I change into pajamas and sequester, alone in my bedroom, hoping for a distraction-free space for writing. Desiring natural light, I raise the blinds, then recline on the bed with laptop and begin forming my thoughts. Looking for a word, I turn my eyes from the screen, stare out the window, try to focus, but like the dog who can’t not pay attention to the spot of light reflected on the floor by a wristwatch, I find a diversion I am powerless to ignore.
I should have known this would happen. As soon as I raised the blinds, a pair of ruby-crowned kinglets flew from the willow. Now, as I try to focus on writing, they return.
I swing open my second floor window, and remove the screen. The commotion sends the kinglets packing, but I am undaunted and sit down anyway. They will return, and when they do, I will be ready with my camera.
Howard Thurman is credited with saying, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Despite the fact that Thurman almost certainly did not ever actually say these words, at least not with any catholic intention, I love to apply them in these moments. Watching and pondering birds makes me come alive, and if there is any chance a man as brilliant as Howard Thurman endorses my distraction, I’ll take it.
While I wait for the kinglets, a pair of Steller’s jays lands in the tree. They are building a nest in a nearby spruce, and the moss on the willow makes attractive bedding. As one collects greenery, the other watches. Not being sexually dimorphic, I can’t tell which is male, which is female, and since jays share in the work of gathering sticks, moss, leaves, and mud to make their nest, either one could be the laborer, either one the supervisor.With a single beak full of moss, the pair flies together back to the spruce where on some horizontal limb, their nest-in-progress is hidden, and I resume my kinglet vigil.
As expected, the two tiny birds arrive one right behind the other. I wonder how they feel about sharing this tree with the moss collectors. Jays are known to make a meal of eggs and nestlings when given the chance.
The male kinglet hops my way, his ruby crest visible but relaxed as he hunts for insects right outside the window. Nearby, his mate also shops at a frenetic pace, but stays on the other side of the canopy. They are a petite pair of tightly-strung dervishes, hardly pausing in their hunt.
Were he still wooing her, the male’s ruby crown might be erect, like a brilliant flame atop his head screaming, “Pick me, pick me!” Or, if she was on the nest, he might use his display to lure away a would-be predator—a jay, perhaps.
For now, though, there is no cause for alarm, and seasonal amore has taken a back seat to more practical matters.
This pair will only be together for about two months. She will build a delicate high-maintenance nest from moss, feathers, spiderwebs, and leaves, high in the canopy, perhaps in the same tree as the jays. In it, she will lay and hatch 5 to 12 eggs, and together they will raise a single brood of chicks until they fledge.According to legend, the male kinglet acquired his flaming crest in a race to the sun that would determine which bird was to be anointed king of the avian world. The kinglet won the race, but not without cheating.
Early in the race, the little bird landed on the back of the powerful eagle who was expected to bring home the crown. So light was the tiny kinglet that the eagle didn’t even feel him as he buried himself in his feathers.
There, the kinglet waited until the eagle had outlasted all the other birds and begun to tire. Thinking he had the race won, and feeling the oppressive heat of the sun, the eagle turned to begin his descent back to earth and receive his prize.
Just then, the kinglet popped out of the eagle’s feathers and with fresh wings easily flew closer to the sun and won the race.
Back on earth, the other birds had no choice but to admit that the kinglet flew closest to the sun and was thereby named king. The extreme heat had even burned a permanent red crown on his head—proof of his anointing.
Though not granted the crown, the race also left the eagle with an indelible mark. Long exposure to the sun’s rays had bleached the feathers on his head and neck, rendering them as white as snow.
Since that time, the majestically adorned eagle has had the respect of all the birds, while the kinglet, shamed by his actions, has been left to hunt alone, hiding in the canopy, never sitting still for long, lest the other birds find him and mock him.
Nobody remembers what the hyper little bird was called before the race, but ever since then, he has carried the monicker kinglet—the little king—though his “subjects” offer him no allegiance.
As the kinglets work, I hear a third pair of birds calling from the other side of the house. Bald eagles have been using a nest in the top of a spruce growing just a few yards up the hill for thirty years. From the driveway, I can look up and see them standing on the edge of their giant stick-built nest. Some of their materials are as long as baseball bats and nearly as thick—a far cry from the kinglets’ spiderwebs.
Though the timing is almost certainly coincidental, the eagles’ calls seem to drive the kinglets away from the willow and back into hiding. Unlike jays, bald eagles do not prey on small songbirds, so the kinglets have no reason to be frightened by the eagles’ voices. Unless, perhaps, the eagles’ staccato call sounds to the kinglets like laughter, and the little king, reminded of his mythical history, is fleeing with his crownless queen, ashamed.
With kinglets and jays out of sight, and the eagles quiet again, I return, distraction-free to my laptop. As for the word I was seeking that originally turned my gaze out the window, I can’t even remember what I was thinking about. All I can hope for now is that Mr. Thurman, or whoever said those words about what the world needs, was right, because following a half hour of watching and pondering birds, I most definitely have come a little more alive. Now if I can only think of something to write about.