In Quarantine, I Finally Understood the Magic of Birds

It took a pandemic for me to see what my mother had been trying to show me my whole life.

The cardinal was my gateway bird. Eight weeks ago, and newly quarantined at my in-laws, I joined my husband and five-year-old son at a nature preserve. They’d come for birds, equipped with binoculars and cameras; I’d just wanted out of the house. Not long into the walk, the wind picked up and misty rain started to fall. Damp and freezing, I was about to suggest turning back, when high in the tangle of barren tree branches, set against the soup-gray sky, was a tiny crimson silhouette. Suddenly I forgot about being cold and miserable. 

My mother is a dedicated birder, the kind who takes a bus to far-flung marshland to ogle an ibis. The allure mystified me. You saw a bird, then what? For my whole life, I zoned out whenever she talked about birds.

But after tagging along on a few walks with my mother in Central Park, my son Arthur was asking for his own pair of binoculars and wanting my phone to scroll through Manhattan Bird Alert on Twitter. Arthur quickly became fluent in bird, he and his nana sharing a new language. I didn’t get it, but I was thrilled that the two of them had a thing.

Then came coronavirus. In mid-March, our family of four relocated to my in-laws in Long Island, while my parents stayed on the Upper West Side. Nana would not be around to take Arthur on bird walks or conduct “warbler school,” tracking the new arrivals of spring migration. Someone would have to sub in.

Luckily, my husband was already into it. The birder practice of keeping a life list—a numbered list of seen species—appealed to his competitive side. Before we left, Adam had gotten a camera and downloaded Merlin, the bird version of a facial recognition app. I even dared hope that Adam could schedule his work to take Arthur out for a bird walk during our two-year-old daughter’s daily nap, and I’d block out this time to write.

But my fantasies of this kind of orderly structure were quickly snuffed out. Naps were refused. Hours were sucked into a vortex of folding laundry, gathering cotton balls and old egg cartons for Arthur’s pre-K Zoom meetings, and scraping gummy bunny remnants off the floor. Reminiscent of the early days with a newborn, a more pressing task always interrupted the one I was doing. I was constantly busy, yet never accomplished anything. I felt weary and cranky, homesick for my old life, then guilty for my self-pity as a healthy person.

Desperate for a change of scene, I went on the walk in the nature preserve. And I saw the cardinal. I’d seen a Northern Cardinal before, but never in such perfect contrast to its surroundings. Pungently red, its chest puffed out, the bird stood defiant in the face of gloom. Amid the storm clouds, this tiny, feathered resistance filled me with hope. Maybe my mother had been on to something. Maybe I just needed to meet the right bird at the right time.

On return trips to the preserve, Arthur has shown me White-breasted Nuthatches, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Tufted Titmice. We’ve come so often that the once skittish family of Wild Turkeys seems vaguely bored by us. The days have blurred into weeks, time marked not by plans or events, but birds, the regulars we’ve seen over and over, and occasionally a new addition to our life lists. 

No one would call me a skilled birder. Arthur often has to correct my identifications. I am unsure whether I’ve ever correctly operated a pair of binoculars. But it doesn’t matter. I love looking at the staccato micro-movements of a House Sparrow, how daintily a chickadee pecks at seed, or the way the Canada Goose hovers over the water before landing. Going about their daily routines, birds have managed to sneak a little joy into the bleakness.

When we get home from birding, Arthur always wants to FaceTime nana. He asks her if she’s seen any exciting birds. “Not today,” she usually says. As the virus persists inside the city, my mother, who is in her seventies, isn’t leaving the house much. When she does get out, riding her elevator wearing a mask and plastic gloves, a Clorox wipe tucked in her palm, her pleasure has been pierced through by fear. And even after all her years as a birder, it’s no longer the same without Arthur. 

The feeling is mutual. Arthur misses home, most urgently because “nana needs me to be her eagle eye in the park.” I tell him hopefully we’ll go back soon. The lie is for both of us. Each day normal seems further away instead of closer. As the weeks go by, the separation from my parents feels increasingly like a macabre dress rehearsal. I hate it, but maybe there is an upside. Birding with Arthur, I’ve belatedly threaded a link to my mother, a way to conjure her up when she can no longer be reached by Zoom. Someday, hopefully long from now, I’ll be grateful.

The mornings are suddenly noisier. Instead of yelps of ‘mommy,’ I am awoken before six by the chirps and sharp trills coming from the backyard. A recent email from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology explained that “[w]hile things may be changing daily in the human world, nature is progressing right on schedule.” The birds are building their nests, marking their territory, and doing the opposite of social distancing—trying to find a mate.

Driving back from the preserve one afternoon, we noticed a huge nest atop a phone pole. Soon an Osprey circled overhead, a stick in its beak. We come now with picnic lunches and foldable chairs swiped from my in-laws’ garage to sit by the road and watch the parents tend to the eggs. A digital nana often joins us. Arthur cannot wait for the babies to hatch out. He wants to be there when the chicks learn to fly. And for the first time, I’m glad we’ll be sticking around.