Luncheon

December 18, 2014

It is Day 12 of my illness. Sometimes you shake the blahs, sometimes the blahs shake you. I walked to the front door at noon and looked outside to my bowl-shaped front yard. I would have settled for watching passing cars on Clifton Terrace, or the mailman pulling in to my driveway or the old couple that prowl the road shoulder with their dog and somehow don’t get run over, or the Alton High/Marquette High cheerleaders doing splits in the leaves.

There was a bird luncheon going on under the closest fir tree. Red-headed woodpeckers and red-headed northern flickers and blue jays—ten birds altogether—were hammering at the frozen ground. I backed away—all those species are skittish—and fetched my binoculars and returned and watched and swore. Have you ever seen something so beautiful, you swore because no words could match the splendor?

The flickers and woodpeckers had matching scarlet heads. Normally they perch on the sides of trees and hammer at dead wood. The lavender blue jays, in the crow family which means they possess high intelligence, aren’t known for socializing, so seeing these three species side by side at the lunch counter, was amazing.

Chickadees perched in the fir and watched from above. The hammerers were gulping up a Christmas treat and not bothering to chase one another away. It was like a highway construction site with jackhammers pounding. The energy expended, from rapid pounding of hard bird heads and rapier beaks, was astonishing. I heard a polite flicker say, “Please pass the potato salad.”

A few days ago, I had a couple of pounds of shelled pecans left over from a stash my neighbor had brought me, fresh from our hill. I ate as many nuts as I could, but the main stash was beginning to soften and rot. I didn’t want to waste them so I carried the white paper sack of pecans outside to a hollow stump next to the fir. I loaded the stump at sunset. And listened to a pair of barred owls making love hoots.

At seven the next morning, three grey squirrels sat upright and faced inward on the rim of the stump and feasted. Their tiny faces were nut-swollen; they had found the mother load. Unlike you or me coming upon a mother load of, say, pecan pies then stepping back for fear of a trap, squirrels eat first and never ask questions.

At nine, the three squirrels’ white bellies were distended as big as baseballs, like uncles at a Christmas dinner. They were binge eating now, and breakfast had turned into brunch, and I thought they were going to pop.

But instinct took over; the three picked up pecans and looked for burial spots. But each was afraid to leave the stash for fear of robbery. They jumped down and jumped right back up. One of them held up a left paw and threatened to bitch slap its companions. They circled the stump rim and scolded each other like dueling mothers-in-law.

There were two observing groups of this behavior: me, and some blue jays in the fir tree.

At ten, the grey squirrels gave it up. The three of them grabbed pecans and ran short distances and buried their treasures and hurried back, and it was King of the Hill time. And while they were thus distracted, the blue jays, who know a thing or two about food stashing, landed and unburied all the buried pecans and speared them and flew off.

At lunchtime, the three disconsolate grey squirrels ran sideways around the stump. One of them jumped into the hole, and a flurry of plant-based effluvia erupted into the air. Dude was digging his way to China but not to nuts. They searched the roots, they body-searched each other—no nuts. Well . . .

At 12:30, three agnostic squirrels, who had bought in to the “consider the lilies of the field” Bible passage, now contemplating life without tree stump nirvana, went their separate ways. The jays, loaded up on protein, ganged up on helpless goldfinches—they called them “girlfinches”—and sang a Christmas carol.

And at today’s bird luncheon that carol was repeated as, at dessert, the blue jays sobered up and chased away the flickers and the red-headed woodpeckers, and those red ornaments rose up to the great trees. And the lavender blues sang:

“Jay to the World.”

 

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