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To each her own

Margaret Parkinson


We each have a role to play, our own tasks to do.  

The trick is to figure what is our business or what is not.   At almost sixty years of age I still don’t always know which is which.   Sometimes I poke my nose where it does not belong and give others the benefit of my unsolicited advice.  In the meantime, my own responsibilities—tasks that no one else can do but me—are neglected.  Birds, in their natural environment, inspire me to “get it right”.

* * * * * * * * *

We arrive at the ocean during house building time. Hundreds of swallows have recently arrived from places south.  Their bags are barely unpacked but they, with no vacation time for rest, gather construction materials for their homes.  Some find the remains of last year’s dwellings still available, simply requiring a little repair and maintenance.  Others have to start from scratch.

Barn and Cliff Swallows gather mud from recently rained upon earth, cliff and river bank edges to use as plaster for walls and rooms and doors. I am grateful—and so are they, I suspect—for the eaves under our cabin roof that provide perfect surfaces for the adobe-type dwellings they build.

The Violet-Green Swallows choose shallow hollows in standing snags near the water for their construction sites.  They rush to the prime spots in competition with American Starlings, House Wrens and House Sparrows.   Some find nesting boxes erected by friendly humans with entrance holes carefully sized to admit swallows while excluding others.   All that is required of these renters is to fill their ready-made condos with twigs and feathers and lichen.

A Common Merganser mother and her five tiny chicks come scuttling down the river toward the ocean as the tide creeps inward.   She has already built her nest upstream, beyond my sight, in a tree cavity.  Mr. Common Merganser, as is his habit, fertilized her eggs and departed for exclusively male merganser gathering places.  Momma is left to hatch her eggs, feed her brood, push them out of the nesting hole and teach them what they need to know to survive in the world.  When I saw her, she appeared harried, her rusty colored “hair” waving in the breeze and her eyes darting constantly to keep track of her babies who are darting in all directions.   Despite their insatiable curiosity the young ones do pay their mother mind and make it to the mouth of the river and back again under her direction. After a second romp down stream the chicks loose their exuberance for swimming and jump onto Momma’s back for a free ride back.   I can almost hear Mrs. Merganser sigh as she meets her care-giving role and struggles to carry her load of little ones around a bend in the river to calm protection.  Once assured of their safety, she dives deep in the water leaving her fluffy darlings to scatter in astonishment and experience a few moments of what it will be like when they become self-sufficient.

Mrs. Merganser does not have to be without adult help, as it turns out.  Aunt Merganser appears from nowhere, apparently offering child-rearing help.  Momma will have none of it.  “Get out of here,” I interpret her shouts and she chases the childless duck across the river and out of sight of her babies.  “These are mine! Is it my fault you didn’t have any this year?”   Aunt Merganser does not take much persuasion and swims off in a huff.   “Well, if you don’t want my help I have my own things to do!”

Overhead a group of Bald Eagles glide effortlessly by.   I notice one immature (probably from last year’s brood) and two adults, boasting their white heads and tails, glistening in the sunlight.  In the distance, their nest sits high in a tree with an ocean view.   They have used this home for several years and this year they have only to add some branches and shift things around a little before settling into the business of reproducing.  I watch in awe as the two adults begin their mating routine.   High in the air they stretch their strong yellow talons forward, grasping each other for just a second.   I know that if I am fortunate, I may see them gripping each other firmly and tumbling head over heels in the air. Their summersaults will confirm their commitment to each other and to the new family they will raise together in their skyline home.

A White-Crowned Sparrow draws my attention sitting on a fence post, singing, singing, singing—calling for a mate. Zee-zee-zeetzi-dee-diddle-iddle-dee.  Zee-zee-zeetzi-dee-diddle-iddle-dee. Zee-zee-zeetzi-dee-diddle-iddle-dee.  I translate this sparrow-talk as, “See, see, me, I am lovely, sweet and kind.  Choose me, choose me, choose me.”  He will keep on singing until he finds a willing mate and they too will establish a nest and raise a family.  I will not be here to see it.


House building is not all these “flying works of art” have on their minds.  As well as gathering materials, building and decorating, they have to eat.  The swallows swoop and soar catching airborne insects.  Some dip toward the river, breaking the surface to snap up water bugs.  The sparrows pick up seeds from the bushes and grasses.  The eagles swoop to catch fish or small birds and mammals for their nutrition.  Crows get food from anywhere.   And the merganser family?  They rely on the fish and river creatures Momma catches during her rushed dives.


Other birds are performing their specific tasks. Glaucous-winged Gulls stand guard at the mouth of the river. They peck in the sand for food and later bathe vigorously in the water.  Sometimes they just stand and watch.   Perhaps it is their job to monitor the waves or to check the sky.  Whatever it is, they know what they are meant to do.

Cedar Waxwings travel in groups seeking out prime spots for fruit gathering.  Each eats until satisfied and then passes more fruit along a line of relatives to some who still have an empty spot in their crop.  Ssee ssee ssee—eat, eat, eat, they whisper to each other.   Feeding and sharing is their responsibility.

A loan Pigeon Guillemot swims by in the surf. She doesn’t stay long. I have no idea what she is doing, but she knows.  She does it.

* * * * * * * * *


Some people call non-human species “dumb animals”.  Who is unintelligent who knows why they are here and how they should behave?   Who is ignorant who lets others live their lives without interference or judgment?   Do we humans, the “superior ones”, do that?  Not always we don’t.  

© Margaret Helen Parkinson
Seattle, Washington, USA
May 25, 2005

Photographs by © Karen M. Creason. 2005.



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