Ten minutes before heading out the door to have brunch with friends, I heard a pop against the large picture window that sits above the central staircase of our house. It sounded like a sharp tap – almost like a fingernail snapping against the window – and it was followed by an almost imperceptible bump. A sparrow had flown into the window and was lying on the deck, wings spread, chest heaving.
In the last twelve months, I have buried two other birds who didn’t survive similar crashes. One was a blue jay who hit the front door and snapped its neck. When I first saw it, the adult jay was splayed on its belly, brilliant blue wings perpendicular to its body. It looked like an avian savior on the cross, and it gave a great, slow-motion heave of its wings. I thought it was alive, and shouted out to Leigh that it was okay. It wasn’t okay; after that last valiant gesture, it died. The hummingbird may not have hit a window; Leigh found it on the porch, possibly the victim of a neighborhood cat or perhaps having succumbed to its own super-fast heart rate. Hummers go into a state of torpor at night; for some, getting that heart revved up in the morning doesn’t work and they expire. It looked like a little jewel, like I could stick a pin in it and wear it on my lapel.
In addition to those two deaths, dozens of birds have hit the windows and survived. When I hear them crash, I usually go outside to see what kind of shape they’re in. In the past, some have looked pretty bad and I feared they’d not make it. A warbler last year took nearly two hours to regain its bearings. I sat at its side, worried that a larger bird or one of those cats might spot a tempting lunch. I watched the bird breathe, blink its eyes, and occasionally try stretching out one of its wings. Eventually it hopped a few paces from me, and ten minutes after that proceeded to hop across the lawn. I still worried its wing might be broken, but the warbler finally gathered its composure and flew off.
I don’t think today’s bird will be as fortunate. It hit hard, and its right wing appears damaged. It can’t stand; every time it tries to right itself, it tips onto its side. I’ve spent 30 minutes with it, and now have to head over to my friend’s. I’ve built a kind of low fortress around the bird, a windbreak made of towels, so that it’s partly camouflaged but can still hop out, if it comes to that. I don’t think it will. I think that sometime over the next few hours, while I’m laughing over brunch, the sparrow will die.
When we got home, it was still breathing. I thought about moving the bird into the garage, where it would be absolutely safe from predators, but worried that if it tried to fly, it’d do further damage. Left it alone for the night.
It’s morning. The sun is a cold disc in the eastern sky. The sparrow is dead. Over the first few hours of morning, I hear two more crashes. Neither are casualties; both birds shake themselves off and fly away.
This afternoon, I will bury the sparrow beneath a maple tree. If sparrows have spirits, and if those spirits have an aesthetic sensibility, this one will have a view of thousands of trees and a winding creek, will hear the local owl at night and the geese at dawn; will hear, at times, the howl of a coyote or the whistle of a distant train. I’m beginning to think we live in a bird cemetery, but that’s probably only the start of it. Nature is full of the marvelous, for sure, but it’s brimming over with death and dying. Even now, at the start of spring, I’m noticing which trees survived the long winter, which will not bloom due to ice damage, disease, or other mysterious and terminal CODs. I watched the gallant attempts of the crocuses to survive several days of snow and wind; they didn’t make it. And now I will be nursemaid to the birds, talking quietly to them after they’ve hit a window, hoping they can recuperate, burying them when they don’t. Elsewhere, I will remind myself, a friend is trying to decide whether to keep her cat alive by giving it daily injections. “She’s my longest relationship,” the friend writes, having lost both her parents last year. I will remind myself of another friend, who is in the process of learning how to say goodbye to her younger brother, dying of cancer. And another friend, who is relearning his life after surviving a brain aneurysm. And another friend, who has endured two years of fruitless tests, all attempts to diagnose an illness that has sapped her of her strength, energy, and creativity. These are the people I am closest to in the world, individuals I consider my family. Of them, right now, I am the luckiest.
I hold no formal faith, believe in no true god, but when I place a rock on the grave of the sparrow later today, I will whisper a prayer.