by Kaitlyn Teer
Little Brown Birds
When my daughter is nine months old, she claps her hands together for the first time while watching bushtits forage in the bamboo that grows along our backyard fence. She stands on the sunroom’s faded sofa and looks out the window, absorbed in the action of birds flying across the yard, flitting between the bamboo and butterfly bush.
Bushtit, chickadee, creeper, nuthatch—I’m an amateur, but I name these little brown birds for her as best I can while practicing baby sign language, placing my thumb and finger beside my mouth and making the gesture of a beak opening and closing. “Bird,” I say, slowly and clearly. She claps. I point out the window, “Bird.”
We often sit together on this sofa as I read my daughter board books. She keeps pulling from the shelf The Colors of the Pacific Northwest, so I read it over and over again. Green is for Douglas fir, pink is for bleeding hearts, silver is for coho salmon, and red is for sapsuckers.
The photo appears in my news feed: a man in a flannel shirt cradles a red-breasted sapsucker against his chest. A window collision, and so the bird lies still and stunned on the rise of his belly.
When I was pregnant, I would sit on the sunroom sofa and rest my coffee mug in the same place where the man held the stunned bird, right where the slope of belly meets ribcage, and my daughter, who was curled within my womb, would respond to this warmth by reaching out an elbow or a foot toward the mug, a greeting that became our morning ritual.
The man in the flannel posted this photo to a regional Facebook group for birders, a group I joined years ago to improve my identification skills, to expand my vocabulary beyond the general classification “bird.”
Of the red-breasted sapsucker, the man reports that it survived and flew away.
We are birding in the Skagit Valley, on the ancestral homelands of the Coast Salish Peoples, and I am wearing my daughter against my chest. We are on a shoreline trail bordered by tidal mudflats and marshes, where we’re hoping to observe American pipits.
As we walk, we listen for the songbird’s call. “Listen,” I say. “For the peep-peep.”
I am holding a pair of binoculars just above my daughter’s head, which I’ve covered with a knitted hat and the hood of her windbreaker. It’s early autumn, but there’s a chill blowing in over Padilla Bay.
It’s my daughter’s first birding excursion, and my walking lulls her to sleep, so she does not see when my friend points out the northern harrier, a hawk floating easily like a kite above the rippling marsh grass.
Call and Response
The next morning, at the church service we sometimes attend, the call to worship praises the beauty of the earth and the beauty of the skies, and in the next breath, confesses the mined earth and poisoned skies.
I am holding my daughter on my hip, the bulletin in one hand, and I join my voice with all those standing in the sanctuary, who are reading the words aloud, asking, “Will we rise if birds can’t survive; will we, ourselves, go extinct?”
Three Billion Birds
Later that week, a news alert on my phone about a newly published study: Researchers report that the continent’s bird populations have decreased by twenty-nine percent since 1970.
The headline states that North America has lost three billion birds, a number too large to comprehend.
I think of the harrier hawk rising above the marsh, the red-breasted sapsucker, and our neighborly bushtits, and I am stunned.
Someone shares a post to the Facebook group titled “Why you should never let a stunned bird fly away, even if it can.” It’s the story of a brown creeper that struck the glass curtain wall of an art center in Ottawa. Rehabbers placed the bird in a paper bag, then transported it to an enclosure, where they offered it medication, rest, and a dish full of crickets.
This bird, it strikes me, has received more care than some children.
The next day, a volunteer preparing to release the brown creeper felt its body, bloated and tight with pressure, beneath their hands. They felt the bird’s leaky respiratory system—severe subcutaneous emphysema. Not air beneath its wings, but beneath its skin. Skilled rehabbers deflated the brown creeper, seeking out pockets of trapped air with a hypodermic needle, releasing the pressure.
After a window collision, the post advises, do not try to treat the stunned bird on your own, do not handle it more than is necessary to contain it and transport it, do not pose with it for photos. I remember the man in the flannel shirt, his photo of the red-breasted sapsucker, how he held it, and I feel ashamed for him. I wonder if he has seen this counter-post, if he flushes when he thinks of the damage he may have caused, if it pains him to acknowledge that his tenderness is not enough to undo the consequences of his ignorance.
In Ottawa, the stunned brown creeper was transferred to another facility for follow-up treatment with a course of antibiotics and still, the post concluded, there were no guarantees for survival.
Because my daughter loves birds, the stuffed animal we select at the toy store is a northern flicker. When she squeezes it with her chubby hands, it plays a recording of the woodpecker’s ringing and drumming. We hide her bird beneath the sofa cushions, and she finds it by listening for its call. When she’s teething, she likes to chew on the flicker’s beak and tail feathers.
At nightfall, the windows in our sunroom become mirrors. My daughter holds herself up in front of the reflective glass, which no longer reveals birds but instead shows her herself.
There is a merlin that occasionally perches on our backyard fence. We know the merlin is coming when the little brown birds disappear into the bamboo. The merlin perches; the little brown birds are still and silent. During its most recent visit, I point out the merlin to my daughter. “Bird,” I say. She claps. “Bird.”
From the sofa in the sunroom, we watch as the merlin dives into the bamboo. For several minutes the branches thrash. I reach for my binoculars. My daughter and I are both quite still. I can hear her breathing. It doesn’t occur to me to offer a distraction.
The merlin flies away with a little brown bird in its talons.
I notice that our neighbor has hung thin lines of rope in front of her windows. She is an enthusiastic gardener whose whimsical plantings are inflected with lawn sculptures of driftwood, salvaged metal parts, and broken pottery. Her patio is screened with a privacy fence of wood and corrugated metal painted in the primary colors of LEGOs, arranged in a geometric, Tetris-like pattern.
Atop the bricks that form a border between her gardens and the sidewalk, she sets out plastic toys, animal figurines, and race cars for neighborhood children to play with while their parents stop to chat, enjoying her company as she weeds. I often pause to admire what’s blooming and to name these plants for my daughter.
My husband and I discuss the rope that fringes our neighbor’s windows, and I speculate that perhaps she intends to use them as supports for vining plants.
Later, I am scrolling through my newsfeed when I’m surprised to see photos of my neighbor’s home. She has shared them with the Facebook group for birders; the ropes are her proposed solution for preventing window collisions.
“Two days,” she writes, “and no bird strikes!”
The week of the headlines about the billions of lost birds, I take my daughter to her first climate strike. I tell myself I’d march even if I weren’t a parent. But it’s also true that when I hold my daughter, I feel the weight of the future.
I wear her in the front-facing carrier because it’s easier than navigating the city bus with a stroller; because at the protest, I want her to face what’s in front of her.
We join the crowd rallying at city hall, where we have gathered often in recent years. In the pauses between speakers, a teenager who has climbed a tree, urges us to shout louder, like our house is on fire.
Children wearing green T-shirts take turns at the podium naming their fears and demanding action. Later, I’ll read in our local paper a quote from a twelve-year-old who said, “The future doesn’t look promising . . . It’s not fair to the kids if the adults don’t leave us a fair world to live in.”
When it’s time to march, I listen, once more, to a child’s directions. He tells us to fall in line behind the Indigenous leaders, and I remember that this is not the first apocalypse our continent has known.
At home, I’ll nurse my daughter from the comfort of the rocking chair in our sunroom, pale skin of chest exposed, and look out at the wind swaying the bamboo and think, it has never been a fair world. Some of us have always known that, some of us are still learning what we don’t know, and some of us are in denial.
What I Can’t Say
“I have hope like an ocean in my soul.”
I can’t speak these words during the call to worship that laments extinction, even though I wish to join my voice with the congregation.
But, at the climate march, I participate fully in the call and response.
“What do we want? Climate action!” Our voices lift. “When do we want it? Now!”
My daughter won’t remember this, but I want to be able to tell her about our participation in this march someday. About how it felt to shout, the back of her head resting against my sternum, my ribcage expanding and vibrating as I chanted with the crowd.
Deflating brown creepers, hanging ropes from windows—I want to believe these small actions mean something. But on a sunny day, I survey the smudges my daughter’s fingers have left on the glass in our sunroom, and say to my husband, “We should wash the windows.” Because I live where it rains perpetually, and I am greedy for light.
And I think about purchasing a decal to warn the birds, but I don’t. And I don’t know that this march will do any good, but for all the other ways I fail to take action, for all the ways my daughter will someday see me clearly as part of the problem, I want to be able to tell her that I did something.
Like Your House Is on Fire
We discuss fire safety in the “Baby and Me” class I’m taking through our community college. The instructor, a kindly, gray-haired pediatric nurse, tells us to buy an escape ladder in case we need to evacuate the second floor of a house that is burning. I imagine owning a home with a second story. I imagine a window opening to the night sky, a plume of smoke, a rope ladder unfurling.
In grade school, I had a recurring fear of a house fire. I used to lay in bed, fretting over what beloved stuffed animal I’d attempt to save if our house were burning, worrying if I’d shiver with the cold out on the street in my pajamas, watching our home burn. Now I have a child.
“But how will we hold onto our baby,” a woman asks, “if we are also holding onto the rope?” The instructor tells us she once asked a firefighter this question, and he recommended placing your baby in a pillowcase so you can shoulder it on the way down.
While opening gifts at my baby shower, I said, “I keep thinking about hope.” I faltered, then, because I didn’t know what else to say about hope.
I don’t know how to parent while questioning whether the birds can survive, wondering whether we ourselves will go extinct, preparing my daughter for so much change. But I am teaching my daughter how to see the world, how to see herself in what is unfair, and how to name what is disappearing.
My field guides and my parenting books share a shelf.
I’m an amateur, and I reach for them often.