On the back of our house is a one-story addition that we call the sunroom, though the sun only reaches it in the summer. More accurately, it's my son's room, the place where his stuff tends to wind up. His old PC is back there. He doesn't use it much any more, but I've found that it's all right for things like checking your e-mail while enjoying a view of the back yard, which is what I was doing one morning not long ago.
The sunroom has large picture windows and a sliding glass door; in effect, the walls are mostly glass, and when the window shades are up, birds on their way to and from our feeders sometimes mistake the oversize panes for clear spaces they can fly through. You'll be in the kitchen getting a second cup of coffee when you hear a sound like a tennis ball hitting a window none too softly. You go over to have a look, but there's nothing to see. Birds are pretty resilient and probably run into stuff all the time; you just don't see them do it. They have to pick themselves up quickly and fly away and mostly, I guess, they do.
This day, I'm sitting at the old PC, cruising around; the shades are up. There is a dark little shadow against the glass in front of me, and I see it: a chickadee swoops up and smacks into the window – whap! – and drops out of sight. I get up, slide the door open, and look outside. It's gone – no, there it is, on the grass with its head down, wings still spread, knocked out cold.
The Black-capped Chickadee (poecile atricapilla) is the state bird of Massachusetts. I suppose it was chosen for this honor because it is a common year-round resident of the state, but so are a lot of birds such as pigeons and sparrows, so I'd prefer to think it's because the chickadee is such a pleasure to have around. It's pretty cute, for one thing, and a hard worker too but there I go: just because the chickadee is less wary around people than many birds, it's easy to start assigning admirable qualities to it. People like to say that chickadees are bold, clever, energetic, even pugnacious, when all they're really being is chickadees.
Before one of the cats can get it, I step outside and pick the chickadee up and cup it in my hands. Instantly I am transported back 50 years to my grandmother's house, listening to her story about rescuing a small bird that had struck a window at her house. She had gathered it up and then sat holding it in her hands, warming it, not moving for a long while. In her many retellings of this story, the tale grew, I think, until it had turned into several such incidents and many hours of waiting in stillness for the birds to die or revive. They always revived.
The bird story is my grandmother all over: the sweet, do-it-yourself rescue of a defenseless thing, the selflessness and extreme patience, the sentimental happy ending. Many people would have ignored the fallen bird and gotten on with their day. Weren't there already plenty of chickadees? But Gran could devote herself entirely to saving a single bird, even a common one, maybe especially a common one.
She came from an old-fashioned time when women began practicing to be elderly from an early age, or so it seemed. In my memory she is always tottering up the stairs on her old-lady pumps, her cloud-white hair forever in a tight bun, her brittle, quavering voice as she tells the cornball little story about holding onto that dumb bird. I probably heard the story first when I was very young, but now as I recall it, I am looking down at her as she sits beneath a shawl and demonstrates with her hands – "like this" – so I am probably 11 or older and have heard the story many times and am impatient to go outside and play. She hoped that I would be just as soft-hearted towards cute little birds, and I probably would, but I also knew that being nice to animals was no way to get respect from the kids I played with. Saving a bird was stupid and sappy – you were supposed to stomp on injured birds, and run your bike over snakes. Besides, I knew some of my friends' grandmothers by now, and it turned out that grandmothers drank beer, ate pizza, went out to movies and dances, pushed power mowers, vacationed in Florida, things my horse-and-buggy Gran would never did and never would. In a sense, her life was more about waiting for poor things to fall to the ground, so she could scoop them up and save them.
So here I was with this bird. It wasn't dead, though I couldn't tell how alive it was. How long would I have to wait for it to wake up? At what point would I decide that enough was enough and set it down in the garden, to let nature take over?
I called to Annie to come out and see, and a neighbor came by and we all looked at it, the tiny black-and-white head poking out, the black eyes blank at first, then blinking a little. I noticed, having never held a live bird, how small it was, and how weightless. A chickadee isn't very big even when it's darting around with its feathers fluffed up against the cold, and when it's lying in your hands half-conscious and deflated, it's very small, a little wind-up toy whose spring is broken.
It blinked more quickly. I stroked its head and back, probably not soothing it at all but just to see what it felt like. It stirred a little and I opened my hands, letting it stand, swaying slightly, where it could feel the sun and wind. I sidled over to a nearby bush to see if it would hop onto one of the branches, but it just stood there.
Several minutes went by, and about the time I was wondering if the bird had knocked something loose in its head and now I was going to have to care for it indefinitely, it vanished from my hands, and, a moment later, reappeared in my grandmother's. There she sits, forever huddled now with a chickadee protected and growing warm in her hands, with all the time and patience she was fortunate to have. I would sit holding that bird too, for as long as it took.