“That’s not a Goldfinch.” Elihu knew what he was talking about, but yet I doubted him. Although the tiny bird was mostly an olive-ish brown, it had a yellow patch at the base of its back, and I, as a mere casual observer of birds, thought it to be a Goldfinch already changed into its drab coat for winter. But Elihu knew better.
I’d found the bird earlier that day, freshly dead, just beneath the laundry room window as I filled the chickens’ water buckets. Poor thing had crashed headlong into the glass and fallen, instantly dead, onto the ground just below. It was still slightly warm and still very supple. Couldn’t have been long ago, as it was morning and had likely happened since the sun had risen. This would be a good take for my kid – he loves to have a real bird to draw. So I brought it in, put it on a plate and left it on the table. Later when we got home from the airport, it was a treat to have this prize waiting for him. Immediately he began his inspection, wings out to admire the fan of feathers, a complete turning over to scrutinize the subject from every angle, a check with his mother to confirm its coloring. He then brought it straight to his desk to begin sketching it. “So if it’s not a Goldfinch, then just what is it?” I asked him, somewhat defiantly. I’m thinking, ‘yeah, kid, there aren’t a whole lotta other options. You just can’t see color – so you don’t understand.’ He didn’t miss a beat. “It’s a Yellow Rumped Warbler”. “What?” I asked, still unbelieving. After all, we’d complied a list of all the birds we’d ever seen or heard, dead or alive, here on our property. And this was not one I’d ever seen or heard before. “Look it up” he said, unphased by my lack of support. He continued to draw. So I grabbed a couple of field guides, a pair of dollar store reading glasses and laid down on his bed. I’ll be damned if the kid wasn’t absolutely right. “WHAT?!” I screamed when I saw the photo. “A Yellow Rumped Warbler?? I’ve never even heard of one, let alone seen one!” Elihu laughed. “How on earth would you know this?” I asked him, still not completely understanding how he could possibly have come to this conclusion. I know the kid was reading David Attenborough’s books and field guides cover-to-cover at six, I knew that he’d memorized every specimen in his two audio bird books, yeah, I knew all this. I realized that through his motivation to look up birds without my help he’d learned how to count, learned to look up three digit page numbers on his own at a very young age… but how was it that I, alongside him for so much of this process, had not learned about a fairly common backyard bird? Maybe this was more the issue here for me and my frail middle-aged ego; my kid had me beat. He knew exactly what he was talking about – and I didn’t.
He continued to laugh at me, and continued his drawing. “Remember the bird that got stuck in Martha’s music room?” I thought back – he was about seven then. I nodded. “That was a Yellow Rumped Warbler.” There was a pause. Elihu wanted to help me out a bit. “Remember the black on him?” And yes, I did kinda. It was very contrasty, very obvious. And I do remember that even back then it was a bird I professed not to know. “Mommy, that was a male Yellow Rumped Warbler.” I checked my field guide once more. Man, this kid was good. “Yeah, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. And I, my dear, am amazed at your skill.” He finished his drawing, complete with the beautiful detailed triangular patches of black on the top of the breast, something we’d not have known about had we not had the bird in hand. He had a huge smile on his face the rest of the evening as I continued to muse over my own inability to remember this bird and sulked ever so slightly. I wasn’t so pleased with myself, but my pride and joy at his success and happiness more than made up for it.
Last night, before we went to bed, Elihu offered to close the chickens in. He always does a head count. I’ve long given up on this task; I’m satisfied just to be done with my chores for the day and choose instead to tell em I love em all and close the latch. He came back, announcing that Julius Caesar was missing. This seemed highly improbable, as he was the young rooster emerging as the most royal pain in the ass of the whole flock. Mounting all the ladies and fighting the other cocks all day long, it didn’t seem like he’d be the first to succumb to wildlife. I grabbed a flashlight and went out to check for myself while Elihu got ready for bed. Sure enough, I counted only 29 chickens, and didn’t see the big white fella anywhere. I made a cursory check in the trees and around the coop, but saw not a thing. He would’ve stood out, his bright white body and huge, arching tail. I felt a slight sadness at his absence, and noted to myself that it was a selfish one: he was one delicious young bird we wouldn’t be enjoying on our table. Rats. I went inside and confirmed the news. “Darn” Elihu said. I began to comfort him when he stopped me – “I’m not sad, Mommy, it’s just that we didn’t get to enjoy him, someone else did!” We had a little laugh together, and were warmed at the thought of another creature sleeping full and happy this night, and so we let it go. After all, we still have another five roos that promise to be just as tender and delicious.
Birds in every form, enjoyed and appreciated in every way possible. And all thanks to one young boy who sure knows his birds.