Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“What’s that racket?” I said as youngest son and I walked out to the driveway. He was ready to go back to his home in San Antonio.  The spiked, golf ball size gum balls that I had blown away just the day before littered the concrete. If it had been a mast year for the oaks in the yard, the equivalent largess had occurred in the xylem and phloem of the sweet gum trees. I had never seen so many gumballs as there were this season. They polka dotted the grass and drive.  They crunched under our feet. One caught just the wrong way under my flipflops could unbalance me and Mother complained every time I made her walk out to the mailbox.

“I’m gonna break my leg on these damn things,” she said.

Above us, in the newly emerged star shaped foliage of the gums, was the source of the racket.

“Listen to that!!” I exclaimed in wonder. I wanted him to appreciate the remarkable cacophony.

Youngest son, nonplussed, shook his head to feign interest.

But he started listening. And he was looking.

It was a world of birds, hundreds in the gums and pines, chattering away as if they had something important to say. Suddenly, a flock of them would follow each other to a different gum tree. And then back again, they would flitter about in the leaves. They sang a chorus that was loud and happy. It was raucous and excited, a party of sorts. It seemed like they were taking advantage of a moment.

It seemed like it was something I should pay attention to.   

(I believe in the ways of nature. I think we miss out on a lot because we have forgotten how to be diligent in observation. We don’t pay attention. And we are in a very big hurry most of the time. A little bit like raising children, you can say all day long that its quality time that matters, but the truth is you can’t really get quality without a certain amount of quantity. The way to really appreciate the way this planet works, is to spend a lot of time watching and working with it. And if you can’t or you don’t know how to start, find a gardener or famer or hunter or fisherman who has. Their wisdom and experience will be worth your time.)

“What do you think they are?!” I asked Josh, opening up my iPHone and my favorite bird ID app.

“Maybe grackles?” he said.

A block of about twenty swooped from one tree to the next, and I saw it, as they swiftly chattered and flapped their wings. A small red, almost triangular patch on at the base of the wings.

“They are red-winged black birds!” I said with confidence, manipulating the decision tree on the app to prove my identification.

Giving a sidewise glance at Josh, I did grin a bit. He accuses me all of the time of pretending I know more than I do. He says I make up stuff.

(A little parental caveat here. Since I had nothing but sons, I came to appreciate the way males interact with females in a way that makes me … well let’s just say, I get great enjoyment from them, even when they accuse me of things that are not true. Maybe especially during those times.)

“I didn’t see that. They look like starlings or something to me,” Josh answered. Before he could accuse me of anything, I proofed myself all up with google. Or rather my excellent smart phone app from Cornell.  

“Seriously, you can take anything I say to the bank…”,  I said to Josh.

We listened and watched and it finally became clear that there was an association between this bird party and the gum balls that lay treacherously all over the driveway.

And sure enough…

After Josh had left to go home and the birds and their songs had dissipated with the waning sun, I googled.

Josh and I were both right.

It turns out that gum balls are a preferred food bounty to red-winged blackbirds. The males were the one I saw with the red patches, those patches called coverts. Very sparrow like, the smaller brown birds were their females. While I had spotted the flying patches, Josh’s eyes had focused on the larger birds that were part of the party. The common grackle loves the fruit as well. The birds picked through the spines of the balls, and as they sung and chattered and frolicked among the gums, they were bits and pieces of sweet gum fruit and seed among the balls on the driveway.

Several different species were foraging and roosting together. And when the harvest was ripe, as it was that day, they all availed themselves of the feast.

Consider that.

“Josh, they were grackles. You were right,” I told him later that night when he called to let me know he was home safe.

“But they were sharing with the red winged blackbirds too,” I said.

“Sure, Jan,” he said in that tone. But we both were smiling through the phone.

I lay down that night, starting to pray and I thought about those birds. I used to sing a nursery rhyme when I was little. Something about four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.. which always seemed gross but catchy. I ran through the lyrics in my mind and jumped up to google. Yeah, it was gross. Baking birds in a pie was a apparently a thing in the 16th century…

Uh … sometimes I get sidetracked when praying…

Back on track, I thought, there was a little more to the observation that I needed to heed. There was a verse I needed to look up. Which I did. Because I suck at memorization and I had to make sure I had it right. And I did.

“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

Matthew 6:26 (ESV)

Don’t be worried about now, as strange as these times are, because no matter what your color or station in life or place you live, that is true. You are the most valuable creation that your creator created and He is in power. Do what is smart and right and trust that you will be okay. Because we will be. And share your bounty. Always. And not with people who look just like you.

Doing these two things, you’ll be happier than you thought possible.

4 Responses

  1. Thank you Janet for your calming thoughtful words and sharing God’s words at a time we need peace and perspective.

  2. Janet, What a delightful moment spent once again with you as I read your penned words. You’ve moved me to go outside – right now – and look around at the nature that surrounds me. My eyes are drawn to my newly opened Daffodils. Ahh! They bless me and look like sunshine with a smile. Love them!
    And your word about sharing … you couldn’t be more right about that!

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