674: My Ornithology (Orange-crowned Warbler)

674: My Ornithology (Orange-crowned Warbler)

674: My Ornithology (Orange-crowned Warbler)


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

Just a few days ago I was alone in my kitchen and said out loud to myself, “as birds go, I really like the brown thrasher.” And then I laughed. I laughed at the phrase, “as birds go,” as if I wasn’t interested in all birds, in all the winged things that empty the feeder seed by seed, season by season. Even as I say this now, I think about the time I learned the name of the thrasher and how it sounded like a heavy metal band, it sounded chaotic and violent and yet the bird is mellow, fox-colored and wanders the yard like an upstanding citizen. I love knowing what these monogamous, long-billed flyers that know over 1000 songs are called.

Today’s poem centers on the meditative act of identifying a bird, and how in that intense watching, that observation of their world, we are also discovering something true about ourselves.

My Ornithology (Orange-crowned Warbler)
by Hai-Dang Phan

In the middle of my life, I found myself in an edge habitat
staring into dense tangles of blackberry and watching
a baffling fall warbler feeding drowsily in the shrubs.

He was strikingly plain, olive-green with grayish head,
you might even say dull, dark, dingy, distinctly indistinct—
an orange-crowned of the eastern celata subspecies!

Remarkably and characteristically late, a recent arrival 
from the boreal north of Alaska and Canada, drifting south-
easterly across the Great Plains and Mississippi Valley

to tarry at my local patch in Warren County, IL,
he takes his dear sweet time, for what’s the hurry.
Late this morning approaching the end of October,

among faded goldenrods, the black stars of spent flowers,
I had been walking along a familiar trail of dead leaves
still wet from the night’s gentle frost, a heatless sun

over my shoulder, counting the kinglets fluttering high
above my head in the quaking aspens, counting the maple
leaves slowly rocking down to earth, counting the years.

Lucky, I heard his sharp chip calling from pokeweed!
He sent me into a rapt confusion, looking and listening
intently as I worked on making an identification.

No help, he conceals his crown wherever he goes.
So I trust who his eyelash-fine faint eyeline says he is,
note the details as he goes about his flitting ways,

from perch to perch, flashes of pale yellow under
his flicking tail. While others gorge on autumn berries,
he forages deliberately for his favorite invertebrates,

his pencil sharp bill probing into dead leaf clusters.
The spider tastes good to him. He sips the morning dew
glazed on the bronze leaf. He considers the cataract

of leaf light and vine light. Somewhat of a loner, it’s true, 
you won’t catch him in a mob action, though he has 
a travel companion and may fall into mixed flocks,

as the days on the wing can be tedious and dangerous.
He would stay here, but it is in his nature to go. Yet there
is still green to glean before moving on, and time.

Chances are I will be here tomorrow and the next day,
chances are I will look for him in the misty entanglements
as if pursuing the central mystery of his life, and mine.

"My Ornithology (Orange-crowned Warbler)" by Hai-Dang Phan. Used by permission of the poet.