The grackle has been in our backyard for a full day.
My wife, Donna, noticed it yesterday afternoon, lurking around the bird feeder, a large wooden platform with a gabled roof. After we bought this house and walked the small property for the first time as the owners, we discovered several things we hadn’t noticed on previous walk-throughs: our son’s bedroom had no door; the door between the living room and the enclosed front porch was a Dutch door; this feeder was hanging from a strong cable attached to the front porch’s overhang. I liked the feeder enough to move it to the backyard, where I knew I would spend more time looking at it. I positioned it exactly where it rests now, at the base of the third fence post on the left, just in the line of sight from the back door.
Donna was bringing in the groceries, on her third trip from the car to the house, when she saw it.
“There’s a bird in the backyard,” she said.
I nodded, examining the nectarines for bruises. “Yep,” I said, “I refilled the feeders while you were at the store.”
“It’s on the ground,” she said. “It’s a big black one, but shiny.”
I looked up at her. “Kind of purple-blue?”
“Yes, with angry eyes.”
“That’s a grackle,” I said, not needing to check the field guide on the bookshelf in the dining room—grackles are birds I’ve known by sight and sound since I was a child watching birds out the back door with my brother. “They’re bossy.”
“Is it supposed to be there?” she asked. I bit into a nectarine, the juice running down my chin. She laughed and threw a roll of paper towels at me gently.
“It’s fine,” I told her. “Some birds eat on the ground. Grackles are opportunistic; they’ll eat wherever there’s food.”
This morning, I look outside to check the feeders—they need refilling again. As I step out the back door, I see something dark moving in the grass near the platform feeder on the ground. When I move closer, the dark thing vanishes. I remember the grackle and approach the feeder; he pops out from the far side and hops away, throwing a mistrustful glance over his shoulder.
* * *
When I put up the feeders, Donna was dubious. Not about whether we’d get birds—She knew the feeders would work. She was worried about the other animals they’d attract. Our house is more than a hundred years old; there are cracks in the siding and secret, mouse-sized entrances we wouldn’t even know how to look for. She grew up in a house that was built in the 1970s, far newer than the one we live in now, but even that house was invaded by animals. She’s reminded me throughout the past 15 years that a squirrel once broke into her childhood home. For weeks she reported to her parents that she heard something in the walls; for weeks they told her she was imagining it. One day after school she was home alone watching television when she heard the insistent scratching again. This time she saw a tiny questing paw emerge from the wall. When her father came home from work he nailed a cookie sheet over the hole. She still shudders every time she tells the story.
I assured her I’d let nothing would come in the house. It was normal, I explained, that squirrels would try to get into the feeders. I was diligent, learned quickly that in the summer they needed to be cleaned every few days so the humidity wouldn’t cause the food inside to mold, a danger to the birds. I chose high quality feed, a mix of nuts, whole seeds, and dried fruit, not the millet-heavy mix that attracted house sparrows and little else. I was rewarded for my hard work; soon the yard was filled with feathered bodies winging among the feeders. I was surprised how much I remembered from when I was young—cardinals, goldfinches, house finches, chickadees, Carolina wrens. I bought a copy of Sibley’s Birds East, got excited by the pair of nuthatches that visited regularly, called to Donna when the red-bellied woodpecker found the suet.
* * *
My brother Ron developed an interest in birds early; he was in fourth grade when he asked for a pair of binoculars for Christmas. By fifth grade he was waking our father early on a Saturday morning, dragging him out for dawn treks through tracts of heavily-wooded land to look for birds in the early sunlight. I was always invited, always irritated by this—I hated birding, hated the early morning dew, hated staring for hours into a stand of trees to see a dark shape moving too quickly among the leaves. I knew that to say no was to invite disappointment and disapproval.
Ron would lock himself for hours in his bedroom, listening to cassette tapes of bird songs. He made flashcards to study—this side had the name of the bird (Tufted titmouse) and that side had a special fact about the bird (Lines the inner cup of the nest with hair, sometimes plucked from living animals, including humans). He was annoyed if anyone interrupted, but sometimes he’d let me in to listen too. Our family vacations shifted—suddenly each trip included an itinerary of birding hotspots, places and times where one could find a certain type of bird. The annual family trip to Maine was now focused on puffin tours and excursions to Sunrise Mountain to look for bald eagles. A trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks meant hours looking for warblers and egrets. By the end of junior high, he was planning his own trips without our family, going to “camps” that were designed to take young birders on nature tours through the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona or the Cascades in Washington. The last time he left for one of these tours—this time as a junior in high school headed for Moscow, Russia—I realized that there were things about his life I was never going to understand.
* * *
For the next several hours, I check on the grackle occasionally. When I open the back door, he disappears behind the feeder. When I come close, he appears on the far side and hops toward the back of the yard where a fig tree is unfurling its large leaves in a dense, inviting canopy. Twice, I was quiet enough to catch him off guard—I found him sitting inside the feeder itself, gobbling down the chipped sunflower and safflower seed mixture. Both times, he hissed in surprise and struggled out of the feeder into the grass, heading for the back of the yard again.
“Must be injured,” I tell Donna. “He doesn’t ever fly away; he just keeps hopping.”
“Oh no!” she says, her eyes wide. “But where is he sleeping?”
“I’m guessing behind the feeder,” I tell her, “there’s a little hollow behind it and he keeps hopping back there when he sees me come outside.”
“I guess that’s the life,” she says. “Free food all day, a little roof, a safe place to hide.” She pauses. “What do we do?”
“I’ll text my brother,” I say.
* * *
Ron moved to California in 2000. He tried first to settle in New Jersey, where we grew up, but after several unsatisfying years of college and work, he packed up his car and made the cross-country drive to Sacramento. Once out west, he finished his Wildlife Biology degree and got a job running bird banding studies. He lived in a tent deep in Yosemite National Park for weeks at a time, eating canned soups and crackers, pulling songbirds out of mist nets and attaching lightweight metal bands to their legs. When I visited him there, I realized it was the happiest I’d seen him in a long time: grad-student poor and spending 80 percent of his working hours in the field. He invited me to go to a banding site with him, which is where I learned to hold a songbird: he handed me a yellow warbler, taught me to cradle it in my palm and trap its head gently between my index and middle fingers. It’s where I learned to carefully spread the warbler’s wing, assess the wear and color of the feathers to determine the age. It’s where I first felt my heart quickening in time with the bird’s thrumming wings.
___________________________________________________________________________hey, i have a bird question.
It’s 1:00 a.m. in the afternoon in New Jersey; 10:00 a.m. in the morning in California. We haven’t spoken on the phone in months. I’m not certain where he is—if he’s on a study, it could be days before he responds. A half hour later, my phone buzzes.
___________________________________________________________________________there’s a grackle in my backyard, think
___________________________________________________________________________it’s injured. what should I do?
____________________________what’s wrong with it?
____________________________you’ll have to catch it
___________________________________________________________________________not sure. it’s, like, hopping around but
___________________________________________________________________________won’t fly away. it’s been sitting in my
___________________________________________________________________________ground feeder for the last 24 hours,
____________________________can you see its wings?
____________________________are they sticking out at
____________________________a weird angle?
___________________________________________________________________________i can see them. look normal, no
____________________________does it look roughed up?
No response. He does this often: in the middle of what feels like an important conversation, he stops responding. It’s one of the reasons we haven’t spoken in months—he is skilled at making me feel I’ve blown things out of proportion. I walk to the back door again, phone in hand. The grackle is in the feeder, this time just relaxing in the seed. Another bird lands on the grass near the feeder in a fluster of feathers—a mourning dove, her clumsy body bumbling forward. The grackle rises and opens his wings; his mouth is open too. The dove changes direction, heads for the garden at the back of the yard. The message from the grackle is clear: This is my feeder.
Donna names him Señor Grackle.
Back in the living room, I open an internet browser and enter “wildlife refuge” into the Google search box. It takes only a few moments of scanning the results to find Cedar Run, a local wildlife center that accepts injured and orphaned wildlife with a focus on rehabilitation and release. This is where we need to take Señor Grackle..
At 4:00 p.m., I pick up my phone again.
____________________________you didn’t catch it yet?
___________________________________________________________________________no, i don’t know how
____________________________get a box
___________________________________________________________________________what kind of box?
____________________________literally any kind
___________________________________________________________________________like a shoe box?
____________________________if it’s big enough to fit him,
___________________________________________________________________________well i feel like that might be too small
____________________________then get a bigger box
___________________________________________________________________________Ok i have a box
____________________________you’re going to want to
____________________________come from behind him with a
____________________________small towel. get a big sheet
____________________________or towel too
___________________________________________________________________________well he’s not that big
____________________________no the sheet is for you. you
____________________________want to throw it over yourself
___________________________________________________________________________seriously? now you’re just
___________________________________________________________________________messing with me
____________________________seriously. you need to make
____________________________yourself look not human
___________________________________________________________________________so I use this sheet to hide
____________________________yup you should be able to
____________________________sneak up on him that way
____________________________as dumb as it sounds
___________________________________________________________________________haha I get it. he has a tiny brain.
____________________________then you grab him
___________________________________________________________________________what are the chances he’ll eat my
____________________________although they have strong
____________________________feet, so don’t be surprised.
____________________________Just be firm
___________________________________________________________________________so gloves / long sleeved shirt should
___________________________________________________________________________be worn. i have nice garden gloves
___________________________________________________________________________that are sturdy but not clumsy
____________________________no gloves. they get in the way
____________________________just flop the towel on him if
____________________________you can and then when you grab
____________________________him put his head between your
____________________________index and your middle finger
____________________________to control it
___________________________________________________________________________then put him in the box
____________________________well he’s injured
___________________________________________________________________________right, we think so.
____________________________so you could do
____________________________you hold him with his head
____________________________between your fingers then you
____________________________roll him onto his back and you
____________________________use your thumbs to put pressure
____________________________on his chest
___________________________________________________________________________what does that do?
____________________________it’s a method of manual
___________________________________________________________________________no no no i’m not giving him any
___________________________________________________________________________sort of thoracic anything! why
___________________________________________________________________________would I do that?
No response, but it doesn’t surprise me this time. This is one of the moments he would consider an overreaction. He is a conservationist; he thinks about things like population control and quality of life. But he knows I don’t think about the world the way he does. This is another reason we don’t talk often; we move through the world so differently now, despite our shared history. I recognize (not for the first time) that we are nearly strangers. But I have a plan now. I gather the items: an empty paper box, a hand towel from the kitchen, a large sheet. Donna grabs an ugly beach towel that we borrowed from a friend and never returned.
Out in the yard, I shake open the queen-sized teal jersey cotton sheet we bought at Target when we moved into the house. At the time, it was an extravagance to spend money on sheets that feel like tee shirts. But I was proud of the house, the first tangible thing I really felt was mine in this world, and I granted myself the luxury of the extra twelve dollars for the sheets. Who could have known that two years later, I’d be wearing one in my own backyard as a costume designed to trick a grounded bird into not running away from me? Donna stands uncertainly next to me holding the beach towel.
“But how do you see?” she asks. I pause in the middle of throwing the sheet over my head. It’s a good question. I stand there frozen for a moment, thinking.
“I guess maybe I’ll just try to hold it up in front of me?”
The grackle has been watching us warily from the cover of the fig tree—I can just make out his glossy head among the lower branches. Holding the sheet up in front of my body, I lumber toward him with the grace of a toddler. Halfway across the yard my feet get caught in the sheet and I pitch forward, just barely managing to stay upright. The grackle hisses and retreats deeper into the fig tree. I try again, holding the sheet at chin height, wanting to see my feet and the grackle at once. Of course I trip again.
Donna smirks at me from her position near the back door. “Wanna trade?” she calls, motioning with the beach towel.
“Nah, I’m good,” I say, trying to untangle my feet from the sheet. I wonder if the grass stains will come out.
“You sure?” she asks.
“Yep,” I say, not looking at her. “I can do it.” I finally manage to free one foot and glance back at her. She is leaning against the house, trying hard not to laugh.
“Yeah, ok,” I concede as I free the other foot after further struggle. I ball up the sheet as I walk toward her. She is no longer trying to hold in her laughter, and it’s contagious—we are both laughing now. The grackle, who has emerged from the shadows, is the only one not laughing.
I hold the towel up against my body and move toward him again without tripping; the towel only reaches my ankles. He lets me get much closer this time—I am less than a foot away when he decides that is close enough. He disappears into an overgrown lily bush next to the fig tree. Relieved, I move closer; this plant is short enough to reach down into it, easier than chasing him out of the fig tree. But then I spend the next half hour moving from the lily bush to the fig tree to the feeder, as the grackle continues to outwit me. He is quick, even though he moves like a drunk. Each time he disappears into the canopy of the fig tree, I crash after him; he bursts out, startling Donna and making a break for the feeder. He disappears behind the feeder again. Finally, the two of us creep toward the feeder from either side and corner him there. I tilt the feeder away from the fence slowly, carefully—he’s there, his bright yellow eyes glaring up, his iridescent head cocking quickly from one side to another, trying to keep both of us in his sight. I drop the towel on top of him and scoop him quickly into the box. He shakes himself free of the towel and stares out with his angry yellow eyes, occasionally snapping his beak.
The woman at the wildlife hospital smiles as she takes the box.
“Don’t worry,” she says, “we’ll take care of him. Feel free to walk around the resident
area before you go.” She gestures to the grounds in front of the hospital, where a number of wood-and-wire enclosures are clustered. We walk to each enclosure, looking at the attached signs describing the occupants: a peregrine falcon, a kestrel, a pair of crows, a raccoon, two pairs of turkey vultures, a handful of owls.
“Well if they can’t fix whatever is wrong with him, they can just keep him, right?” Donna asks.
“Sure,” I say. “They’ll make him a sign that says Señor Grackle on it.” I’m not certain if I’m reassuring her or myself.
* * *
Nine years later, I am walking across the grounds at Cedar Run, an empty set of food bowls in my hands. I’ve been volunteering at the wildlife refuge for just over a year now, though I’ve learned everyone counts their time here by baby seasons. This is my second. Three months into a global pandemic, I leave the house only to spend time here, with the animals. I’ve just finished cleaning up the outdoor raccoon enclosures and giving them breakfast, a mixture of dog food, fruit, vegetables, and fresh mussels. They were curious as I cleaned, watching with keen eyes and building the courage to approach me, to pluck with their dexterous fingers at my shoelaces, my ponytail, the walkie-talkie hanging from my back pocket. They were excited to find the mussels hidden among the leaves, began washing them in the kiddie pools I filled with clean water before I was all the way out of the enclosures.
I feel my phone buzz in my pocket. I pause on the walk back to the hospital to pull it out—my brother’s name is on the screen, abrupt and unfamiliar, breaking a six-year silence. I hesitate before opening the message, not sure I want to unlock that door we closed without ceremony or discussion. I consider deleting it, unread—what’s left to be said? My curiosity wins.
____________________________I trust that you and D
____________________________are hunkered down and
I close the text, slip the phone back into my pocket.
Later at home, after a cold shower to wash off the raccoon scent, I search his name on Facebook. In his profile photo, he is riding a bicycle rigged with two safety seats on the back, a child in each. He is wearing a helmet, sunglasses, and sandals; his face, in profile, looks both the same as I remember and impossibly unknowable. Both children are girls, blonde hair streaming out from under their helmets. One is looking directly at the camera, her mouth split in a wide grin. A quick scroll down his feed confirms they are his daughters.
The computer dings and a private message appears over his Facebook wall, a note from my friend who is caring for her ailing mother in Kentucky during the pandemic. She’s sent messages for several weeks about the mourning doves nesting on her mother’s porch.
____________________________Sorry to bother you. I saw a robin
____________________________stumbling around on a lawn. I’m not
____________________________sure if he needs help. His one wing,
____________________________he lets it fold out and then he pauses
____________________________and slumps on the grass on his breast.
____________________________Then he hops a little and falls forward
____________________________on his breast. I dunno.
I expand the message before responding.
___________________________________________________________________________That’s definitely unusual.
The robin is probably not going to make it, but I ask her a few questions anyway. I talk her through finding a wildlife refuge in Louisville that will take him.
Señor Grackle hops across my vision, with his glossy head and bright eyes, disappearing into the wildlife hospital. I never learned what happened to him.
I tell my friend if she wants to catch the robin, she should gather a box, a towel, a sheet. I take a deep breath, then type slowly: Sometimes, though, the best thing you can do is just to leave him alone.
Rachel Bunting lives and writes at the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Her writing has been published in online and print journals including Wordgathering, [PANK], Muzzle Magazine, and The Nervous Breakdown. When she’s not writing, she can be found caring for injured and orphaned animals at the local wildlife hospital.
featured photo by Sam Darbouze