Alice the bird lady filled the tower feeders with wild bird food for the second time that week and, closing the bulk bag tightly to discourage pests, she raised one hand to steady the feeder that dangled from a low maple branch. She cherished her back yard as her private aviary, enclosed by tall, green arborvitae that served as a solid barrier against the outside noise. It began one spring when Alvin had brought home a bright red hummingbird feeder and added a suet feeder the next winter. Afterwards, gradually and then suddenly, around the property she’d added bluebird houses, wren houses, nesting shelves for robins and mourning doves, and a stately white condominium for purple martins. Several pedestal bird baths, equipped with water heaters in the winter, provided a year-round retreat for species that stayed and for those that returned to her care when the weather turned cold.
She and Alvin had sat on the resin storage bench in the garden, bird watching together. Inside it, she stored binoculars, the notebook and bird identification books. Although she observed birds from here often, many of them trusting her as one of their own, she still couldn’t open the notebook containing her late husband’s written observations. She avoided the feeling that rose in her throat when she recalled how his lively penmanship never completely landed on the blue lines of the pages.
After Alice filled the feeders, she stretched on tiptoe to inspect the nesting box balanced on a post. She admired the season’s first brood of bluebirds. Her grandchildren would love this, a rare sight in the states where they lived; she would have to send them a picture. “Hello, little ones,” she cooed. “Oh, how you’ve grown.” The tiny bluebirds quivered, new and helpless, inside the nesting box that she had purchased online.
She understood that people in town called her the bird lady because they thought she was obsessed with birds, preferring them over people. She noticed neighbors pause before her house and point her out with smirks. She’d overheard snatches of hushed comments, including words like “strange,” “recluse,” and “distant.” She didn’t know that the other reason they’d nicknamed her was because she resembled a bird. A retired nurse, she was a small, quick woman with thin legs, a tiny mouth and a nose that, though not large, resembled a beak. She wore her hair, mixed gray and brown, short and feathered close to her head.
Yet, she never defended herself from their ridicule. She simply didn’t care. Alvin’s death had been sudden. Not only had she missed the warning signs, but she’d been unable to save him. Afterwards, it became unbearable for her to continue working as a nurse, so she retired. However, with her grown children relocated and engrossed in the routines of career and family life, she found that each day became a silent, inactive child that she could not engage. After nurturing everyone around her for so long, she discovered that no one remained. Hovering over the nesting box, Alice comforted the hungry brood. Their tiny beaks opened instantly, expecting no harm to ever touch them.
She straightened, suddenly stiff and stern, when she spotted just beyond the nesting boxes two faces side by side among the bushes. They reminded her of garden ornaments except she believed that they blinked. She peered closer. The faces of a tabby and a boy looked back, studied her.
“What are you doing? Get out!” She spat the words as if shooing away squirrels. Wrens and chickadees scattered.
Equally startled, four eyes widened and the cat squirmed in the boy’s arms; it appeared to run in midair. Then the boy lost his balance among the branches. Both boy and feline tumbled forward with shrieks and snapping branches into Alice’s yard. They rolled to a stop near her feet. She took one step back with her hands on her hips, and glared from boy to tabby and back again, as if trying to comprehend how it all had happened. Amazingly, boy and cat were still entwined. His arm remained wrapped around the cat’s chest, lifting up the two front paws as if in self-defense. The boy, however, seemed unruffled.
“Whoa!” He shouted, lifting himself off the ground. “Didn’t expect that to happen!”
She snorted and recoiled from this boy who lacked both volume control and remorse for the intrusion. “I don’t know you. What do you mean by trespassing into my yard?”
“Mean?” He wrinkled his nose. A tuft of his hair stuck up in back. “I wasn’t trying to be mean. I just fell.”
The child’s parents apparently hadn’t taught him any manners. He shouted even though he stood right in front of her. When she crossed her arms, she noticed his untied shoes; he’d shoved the laces inside the shoes instead. “Are you always so loud?”
Taking this as an invitation to chat, he lowered his cat to the ground. It skedaddled before paws reached earth. The boy, oblivious to being unwelcome, blurted out, “Oh, I must be extra loud. I threw my pill in the garbage this morning.”
“Your pill... What?”
“Mommy said I definitely needed to go outside today. Whoa! Look at all this.” He darted off to explore the yard, a bird resort featuring an assortment of feeders, houses and baths in lovely gardens. Alice watched helplessly. Having little experience with children anymore, she was unsure how to stop him or how to convince him to go home. “No wonder they call you the bird lady! Mommy calls me the wild child. Hey look, oranges! You sliced oranges for the feeder?”
She wondered if this child ever stopped talking.
“We had a bird feeder. Then we got Sylvester. Mommy said it’d never work.” He jumped, grabbing at the orange slices. “This is really high. How high is this? Could you put apples on it, too?”
Alice’s head spun from the barrage of questions. If he paused to breathe, maybe she could answer one of his questions. “Stayawayfromthefeeder!”
He jumped once more and stopped.
She sighed and then noticed Sylvester scratching a defiant paw at the soil in her hummingbird garden next to the shed. “Hey!” She shouted and clapped her hands. She was too late.
“Do you sit there to watch the birds?” He called over his shoulder as he ran to the garden bench. She followed him, feeling more tired than she’d felt in a long time. “What’s this stuff for?” He yanked out the binoculars and some books.
Her throat felt tight as she eyed the stack, looking for the notebook. “Sit. Stop talking.” He crossed both hands over his mouth and watched her with big eyes. While Alice retrieved the binoculars and books, she said, “I’ll answer your questions if you stop rambling for a minute. Just pipe down.” He remained silent briefly, considering this expression, until a giggle escaped through his dirty fingers. They sat on the garden bench.
“Now.” She perched near the edge of the seat, watching a few black-capped chickadees return to peck at fallen seeds in the grass. She waited until she calmed her breathing. “What would you like to know about birds?” Finally, the boy sat without grabbing at anything. Maybe if she answered a few questions to satisfy his curiosity, he’d go home.
“Why do you like birds so much? Why do you have so much stuff for birds?”
“Ah, I see. Ask the crazy bird lady.”
“No…well…yeah.” He squirmed in his seat and looked away. “It’s not really weird to like birds. I just wondered.”
He didn’t look convinced. At least he’s honest, she thought, and definitely inquisitive. “I appreciate nature,” she began. “Look at the trees and flowers here—so alive-- the bright red, yellow and orange blooms.” Alice pointed to various flower beds. “Birds are attracted to these. They need them to live. The feeders give them food, and they have water for bathing and drinking. The houses give them a safe place to nest.”
She glanced at the boy. He inspected the yard thoughtfully.
“All of this works together. I discover new birds and learn new things every day. Most people aren’t that aware of their surroundings.” He watched her intently now, absorbing her words like the earth taking in a soaking spring rain. “So while everyone says, ‘Alice the bird lady is odd,’ I think I’m incredibly lucky to have this. She stopped, folded her hands in her lap. Nature was such a complex, miraculous thing. It amazed her that anyone could skate across the surface, never acknowledging the deeper mysteries. “I think they are odd.”
He nodded. “I like taking things apart. Like Daddy’s camera. He says I’m too rough with things. I destroyed it.”
Alice turned the binoculars over in her hands, inspecting it. “Well, I’m sure you didn’t break his camera on purpose.”
“No.” He sounded defensive. “I just wanna see how things work. Staplers. Flashlights. The kitchen clock.” His eyes lit up. “Those cords that go in the computer.”
She felt a mix of sadness and hope for him. She wondered if the wild child’s parents, despite their inevitable fatigue, saw beyond the pile of broken household items. “Do you see those black-capped chickadees? They are sweet, friendly birds. If I sit-- very still like this-- with bird seed in my palm, they’ll eat it right out of my hand.”
“Wow,” he said, impressed but distracted. His eyes shifted back to the shed. “Is that a butterfly?”
Alice chuckled when she spotted his mistaken butterfly sighting. Despite its frenetic motion, she recognized the tiny bird’s shimmering green head and back, soft white feathers on its underside and the tell-tale iridescent red throat. “You are a fortunate young naturalist to witness a ruby-throated hummingbird’s visit. A male.” She opened an identification book to show him a picture and share more about the tiny bird that hovered around the feeder.
Then the boy was yelling again. This time, it was something about the cat. “Sylvester, no!” He jumped up, swinging his arms as if tormented by a flock of starlings.
When she looked up from the book, she spotted Sylvester spring from the grass into the air. As it approached the shed, its paws swiped at the bird like a boxer. Alice dropped the book and ran, too, relieved that the cat had missed. The tiny bird was too fast for the cat and had flown backwards to escape the predator.
Unfortunately, she could only watch as the hummingbird collided with the shed window. The tiny bird dropped to the ground. The boy stomped his foot at the cat. It darted through the bushes from where it had entered.
Alice and the boy stood side by side, looking down at the tiny bird lying at their feet in the mulch. Neither said anything for several moments.
“Is he dead?” He whispered finally.
“Yes, I think he is. Sorry to say. It’s a fragile, beautiful bird.”
He made a whimpering sound. “Should we bury him? Can we pick him up?”
She kneeled, cradled the bird in the palm of her hand. It was motionless, warm and weightless. The boy kneeled beside her.
“Look!” He said. “He’s still breathing!” Indeed, the tiny chest rose and fell almost imperceptibly. Alice didn’t want to raise his hopes though. The chances of a hummingbird surviving both a cat attack and the impact of a window seemed slim.
“The hummingbird will probably die soon,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. But you can watch him. People rarely observe a hummingbird this close.”
“But I run into things all the time. He’ll be okay. Can I pet him?”
“Okay. Feel how silky the feathers are?”
Green feathers glittered in the sunlight. The boy moved gently and quietly as if attending a funeral. He reached over to touch the tiny bird. When he did, it grasped his finger, causing him to gasp and freeze in place.
“He’s still alive!” He whispered.
“For now, yes...”
“We have to save him!” He insisted. His eyes flashed intensely.
Alice wished she knew what to do. It surprised her how much she didn’t want to disappoint him. She was forced to admit, however, that her knowledge was limited this time. “I don’t know how. It’s probably too late.”
“Try mouth-to-beak rescue-tation!”
She smiled a little, but her mind raced.
“Rub his chest? Call the vet? Try something, Miss Alice.” He looked at her, pleading.
She was desperate for an idea. She wasn’t used to flying by the seat of her pants to rescue half-dead birds while calming increasingly hysterical preschoolers. “Okay, um, you rub his chest. Carefully. I’ll think.” He looked relieved to be helping somehow. How could they save something so fragile and beautiful?
When Alice spotted the hummingbird feeder, it gave her an idea. “Let’s try something. I can’t promise anything.” She lifted the bird, still attached to the boy’s finger. They looked like two EMTs lifting a tiny patient on a stretcher. Gently, she dipped its long, delicate beak into the nectar and watched to see what happened.
“He’s drinking!” He fastened his eyes on the hummingbird as it took tiny sips, moving only its tongue.
When the hummingbird stopped sipping Alice’s ornithological IV, she kneeled again with bird and boy. They waited together without speaking.
Moments later, the tiny bird stood in her hand.
Instantly, it was gone.
At first, their breath caught, as if they had imagined the whole experience.
Alice and the young naturalist looked at each other, tossed back their heads and they both laughed loudly.