Molting birds

My name is Sara and this is a newsletter about my goings-on, which generally include being a neighborhood busybody, subjecting myself to pointless challenges, and reading eclectically. You probably signed up because you know me already, but if you are confused and upset about receiving this email, there is a link to unsubscribe at the very bottom.


“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Every evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” - John Berger.

The mockingbirds in my neighborhood are molting. I’ve always thought that mockingbirds have a defiant stance, as if they are daring the entire world to try them. Now that they are molting, they look more ridiculous than defiant. Their bodies are fuzzy like those of juvenile birds. Some parts are fluffed up while others are pared down showing just how small their bodies are. Yet the mockingbirds still have that stance, staring you down while small feathers drop off their backs. 

The Carolina wren who methodically crawls up my cedar tree is also molting, now more scraggly fluff than bird. So are the blue jays. While I work at my kitchen table, I can watch these molting birds pecking around all day on the back deck.

I have lived in this house for over a year and have stared out at that back deck hundreds of times. A year ago, I didn’t see birds. As far as I knew, there were no wrens in the jasmine. I did not know that there were hundreds of small creatures around me, shedding feathers and looking silly. A year ago, the birds were invisible. 

At least, they were invisible to me. They may have been there last year, in the same numbers, performing the same tasks, and with no other evidence I have to assume that they were. I just didn’t see them. I didn’t hear them. I didn’t even hear the wren despite its outrageous volume-to-size ratio. I saw some doves, hanging out on the power lines in dozens. I saw squirrels, which are noticeable creatures, being the only wild mammal that runs about during the day. Maybe I also noticed sparrows, or, as I thought of them, “those small birds”. Otherwise, I was blind to most of the life around me.

I don’t remember my impetus, but one day I decided that I wanted to learn more about birds. I started paying attention. At first, I still only saw doves and squirrels and sparrows. I would try to look at them closely enough to see the differences between them. Was that squirrel male or female? Does that dove have any identifying marks? I took a few notes, but I wasn’t an ornithologist. I was just someone who was looking more.  Now, months later, when I look out my backyard I see a different landscape. There’s a hummingbird that stops by to drink from the yucca every day. There are two woodpeckers that perch on the tree across the street. I saw a crow eat another bird a few days ago. And now there’s molting and scruffy-looking birds everywhere. 

Learning about things makes them more real to you. I am not discovering some new philosophical truth here. I realize this has all been covered before by more erudite and eloquent observers. Heck, I knew this back when I was still blind to birds. Despite knowing intellectually how perception works, I am still astounded by how profound the change was once I started looking around me..

I started noticing birds at the same time that I started seeing parts of Austin that I was blind to. Last year, Austin revoked the sit-and-lie ordinance that criminalized homelessness. Sitting down, on a low ledge along a street, for instance, was illegal, but most businesses wouldn’t let the homeless inside to sit in an acceptable spot either. With no place that they were legally allowed to exist, the homeless remained on the lookout for police, either on the move around the city or hiding in sometimes dangerous places. Repealing the sit-and-lie ordinance has led to camps in empty public spaces, such as the unused concrete areas under freeways. Austinites are now writing screeds on Nextdoor and in the Statesmen about how “the homeless problem is out of hand” countered by “the homeless population hasn’t changed, but now you can see them.” Now we see them. We could always find out the number of unhoused residents in our city, if we wanted to, but now that number is visible. The people themselves are visible.

When coronavirus shut down my physical workplace and I no longer had to commute, I had more free time and I started to devote that time to participating in community groups, such as Austin DSA. Many members of Austin DSA provide aid to the homeless and the organization kept a referendum on sit-and-lie off the November ballot. After connecting with the activists in DSA, I no longer just see the unhoused; I also see the folks working alongside our unhoused neighbors to improve this city. When the homeless were invisible, so were the punk kids and Church moms and other activists who were delivering food and medical supplies to the encampments. Now I can see them too. I could see other possibilities for how to be a neighbor in this city. 

The practice of noticing has been a perceptual cascade. I barely ever leave my house, but when I look out the window I see a different city than I saw a year ago. I know the birds that are visiting me and their favorite foods. I know where on the city council website and find a detailed budget. I know neighbors to turn to if I need legal help or mutual aid. As with all things that I turn my attention to, I’ve even found a way to turn noticing into a form of anxiety. What if I keep learning more and more and the layers of the city just keep peeling back until the city becomes a necromantic tome and suddenly I’ve seen too much!

Ok, let’s back away from the gothic fantasies. Let me take a deep breath and look around, at the bushes and street before me. I’m excited to discover what it is I see next. 

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