Tuesday, November 20, 2018
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Zen & the Birds of the Walmart Parking Lot

European Starling

European Starling, winter plumage

I am not an expert birder. Not by a long shot. But I’m learning, bird by bird.

It wasn’t that long ago that I remember the excitement I felt at seeing a new and spectacularly plumaged guest at my feeder. Iridescent feathers of black glowing purple, green and blue; a bright yellow beak and a snowfall of largish off-white spots sprinkled over his shoulders and down his chest.

He stumbled gracelessly around my platform feeder, mewling like a newborn calf, making funny buzzing noises and looking like a lost traveler from places far away and unknown. As I dove for my bird identification book, my hands were shaking from the thrill of new discovery.

After an hour or more of pouring through the pages of my bird identification books, I finally learned that my visitor was a European starling wearing his winter jacket.

I laughed out loud at my own foolishness. A common starling. A much maligned, invasive and very common Sturnus vulgaris.

I was hoping for something exciting; a rare sighting. Something with an interesting name — a blue-footed booby, perhaps, or an arctic warbler or a great-tailed grackle (none of which hang out anywhere near Chehalis WalMart parking lot).

I consoled myself with the idea that I wasn’t in the habit of studying the starlings. They didn’t come to my feeder to eat (as they do now). I had seen them in my backyard, but only from a distance.

Besides, I told myself, a little (or a lot) of ignorance in all manner of things, common or uncommon, should be welcomed as an opportunity for learning, another chance to discover worlds that, unless we make the conscious effort to observe them,  go unexplored and under-appreciated.

Brewer's Blackbird, female

Brewer’s Blackbird, female

Just the other day I was reminded of my startling (and slightly embarrassing) European starling discovery as I sat in the Walmart parking lot.

It was a beautiful day. The sky was a bright blue and the birds — gulls, starlings, red-winged blackbirds and others — were soaring overhead, flying from lighted perch to lighted perch, keeping their eye out for any messy McDonald’s French fry munchers that might emerge from the whoosh of the electronic doors guarding the entrance, dropping a trail of over-cooked fries like Hansel and Gretel of fairy tale fame.

I suddenly spotted a largish gray-brown bird carrying a hint of iridescence in its feathers,  perched atop a shopping cart stand. My heart skipped a beat when my mind failed to fit a name to the unfamiliar feathered new-found friend.

I grabbed my camera and rolled down my window to capture the moment. My mind flitted back to the memory of my former embarrassment, but I remained undeterred. This bird was new to me, I decided, and I wasn’t going to allow the joy of the moment or the opportunity for new understanding slip away.

Practitioners of Zen Buddhism call it the “beginner’s mind.” Having a beginner’s mind means allowing a sense of openness and eagerness to come forward as you make new discoveries or as you learn to apply new meanings to what has become familiar. We may see the same bird (or place or person) again and again and again, but each time we see it we learn a little more and we can deepen our appreciation for its unique beauty and the gift of its presence.

When I arrived home that afternoon, I learned that the bird I had seen perched above the shopping carts was a female Brewer’s blackbird. Her mate, a greenish-black bodied, purple-headed mate had been walking the pavement below her.

I learned that the Brewer’s blackbird usually travels in small flocks of their own kind, but like to team up with larger flocks of starlings, brown-headed cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds to hang out in lowland fields and wetlands throughout the winter. The Brewer’s blackbird also enjoys the bountiful hunting grounds of Interstate 5. They love to eat vehicle-struck, road-killed insects.

Red-tailed Hawk, Brewer's Blackbirds

Red-tailed Hawk under attack by Brewer’s Blackbirds

One bird book identified the Brewer’s blackbird as a bold and cocky bird, the bane of a chicken farmers existence, “they have even been known to settle into a barnyard, intimidate the resident poultry, and fatten up on the furnished grain.”

I have found Brewer’s blackbirds to be courageous birds. When ravens, hawks or other nest robbers come calling, the Brewer’s blackbirds band together and form an air assault force to chase the intruders away.

The American Robin is the most widespread and common North American thrush and one of the easiest birds to recognize. Because this bird is so well known, birders will often ask, "Was it bigger or smaller than a Robin?" as they attempt to identify an as of yet unknown bird. The Robin's caroling song — "cheerily, cheerily, cheer-up, cheerio" — begins in early spring when they begin to court their mate. The "cheep, chuck, cuck" and whinnie are warning calls, giving other members of their flock a simple "heads up" or a "time to scatter" alarm.

The American Robin is the most widespread and common North American thrush and one of the easiest birds to recognize. Because this bird is so well known, birders will often ask, “Was it bigger or smaller than a Robin?” as they attempt to identify an as of yet unknown bird.

It can be a challenging task, to bring the sublime into the mundane. But it is a worthwhile challenge.

Try putting on the “beginner’s mind” the next time you spot a common bird outside your window. Seeing the same old bird in new ways breaths fresh life into my nature-loving, wonder-seeking, beginning-birder’s mind. Perhaps it will do the same for you.

What are the unique qualities of this bird’s flight pattern? Does he seem nervous or bold? Is she social or standoffish with the other birds? What seed seems to be her favorite at the feeder? Where does she prefer to forage for natural food sources, on the ground or in the trees?

And please, write and tell me what you see. I’d love to hear about the birds in your backyard or local park and add your sightings to the weekly birding report.

About Kimberly Mason

Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer, photojournalist, and web designer. When she's not out chasing a story, you'll find her at work in one her three main offices — her big backyard, the Cowlitz River, or the recliner in her living room. She has four grown children, three grandchildren, and is owned by a Labrador retriever, Buddy the WonderDog.

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