Birds and Old People

What is it about birds and old people?  I’ve noticed a phenomenon for years now – the older one gets the more interested in watching birds they get.  By the time of white hair and chin whiskers, we are out there with our cameras and bird books looking for a red-breasted honeysuckle titmouse. 

Photo by Kaikara Dharma on Unsplash

In many traditions, birds are seen as a messenger of heaven.  Is that it?  The closer we get to the afterlife, the more interested in its messengers we are?

My mom has always been entranced with birds.  She inherited her grandmother’s bird figurine collection and we’ve added to it over the years. She has multiple curio cabinets – we call them birdcages – in which the birds are displayed.

The birds have been on view since the 1980s. 

But even my mother’s interest has gone up in her waning days. 

I bought her a bird feeder that could be stuck to the outside of the picture window via suction cups.  It was small.  Too small for the hordes of birds that showed up.  That tiny feeder morphed into a small table with a large flat bowl filled with seeds. 

We are entertained for hours watching the birds – woodpeckers, blue jays, cardinals, and something small we think is a titmouse, but we’re not sure.  Hence the need for a bird book.  I keep threatening to take my good camera and zoom lens down there to get proper photos.  I too am getting white-haired and whiskered.  Other than buying my mom a bird figurine now and again, I have been largely uninterested in birds. 

I don’t understand this new interest of mine.  And it’s just a burgeoning interest.  I haven’t really acted on it yet.  I haven’t bought the guidebook.  Or dragged out the camera.  My famous last words may be, “I’ll never join a birdwatching group.”

My mother will likely only be with us for a few more years.  I am slated to inherit the bird collection.  Nobody really wants it.  It’s large and easily takes over the average-sized house.  But those glass birds meant a great deal to my great-grandmother and to my mother.  I can’t bear to see them end up in a flea market somewhere.  I have decided to take all of the birds and one of the birdcages, i.e. curio cabinet.

The cabinet is very nice.  Very old.  Big. Claw feet.  Primarily glass.  I think it will live upstairs in my hallway.  There’s one spot that may be perfect for it.  I will choose among the birds a small selection to display.  It will be my homage to the generations of Dalton women who loved birds.

My great-grandmother raised canaries.  She had a pretty big enterprise going on.  The bird room in her house was, I’m guessing, about 25 feet by 15 feet.  My mother tells me it was lined floor to ceiling with cages filled with canaries.  The room was flooded with sunlight on most days. When the birds would sing, the sound was ethereal.

Helping my great-grandmother with the canaries is a treasured memory of my mother’s.  I gave her a canary for Christmas years ago – probably more than 40 years ago.  We named him Kendrick – my grandmother’s maiden name.  Only the males sing so we knew he was a he.

Kendrick provided much joy but died in fright while having his toenails clipped one brutally cold Saturday morning.  My mother was distraught.

A few years later, I replaced Kendrick.  He eventually died as well, and my mom said she didn’t want another.  So, we’ve been sans live birds for many years now.

I wonder, now, if it might not be time for another Kendrick.  I’m always at a loss for a Christmas gift for my mother, but these days I don’t even know where’d you go to get a canary. 

Are there no longer women raising canaries in a bird room of their house?

I think it interesting that my Michigan lineage now lives in West Virginia – home to the canary in the coal mine.  I’m sure those Michigan canaries my great-grandmother raised were not headed for the coalmines, but someone around here had to have been supplying the miners with them. 

There must be an old Appalachian woman reminiscing about the bird room she used to have where the canaries sang in the sunlight.

My Michigan people out-migrated from Appalachia generations ago – my great-grandmother originally from Tennessee to Gape Girardeau, Missouri to Flushing, Michigan where my great-grandfather worked in an auto factory and commercially farmed.

For all I know, raising canaries was a time-honored hobby of Appalachian women – a means of earning a little extra money.

Yes, I will inherit the birds and I’ve already decided that I will keep all the figurines that depict canaries.  I’m pretty sure they will easily fill that large curio cabinet.  I’m a little more excited about inheriting them than I let on.  The collection will be a burden.  But it is also a blessing. 

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