The Healing Grace of Birds
We have no clue how much birds deal with anxiety and worry, but they sure have the capacity to relieve ours.
(Listen to the radio version here.)
Over the years, I’ve talked to a lot of people and read a lot about how much birds help our spirits, especially during dark times in our lives. Joe Harkness’s 2019 Bird Therapy and Tammah Watts’s 2023 Keep Looking Up: Your Guide to the Powerful Healing of Birdwatching are two great books about how nature, and birds especially, touch us in ways that help us transcend sickness and sorrow, and I know in my own life how much healing grace birds have given me.
Among my very earliest childhood memories growing up in a strife-ridden, violent home was being soothed at naptime and bedtime by the House Sparrows cheeping right outside my window. My ears could tune out all the yelling and fury in the house to focus on those friendly avian conversations. I loved pretending that I was part of that sparrow family. When I was in the primary grades, before I had to lug books back and forth to school, the moment I left the house in the morning, hearing those House Sparrows and maybe spotting a robin on the lawn, I could shed all my sadness and angst by opening and flapping my arms as I skipped to school, pretending I was a bird. I can honestly say I had a happy childhood thanks to birds.
I had abdominal surgery in April 1979, and my discharge instructions were to wait a few days before taking short walks on level surfaces. But that was inconceivable in Madison, Wisconsin, right as spring migration was kicking in. On the way home from the hospital, Russ drove me to Picnic Point and the moment I saw a couple of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flitting about, I forgot all about my incision and climbed up a hill to get a better look. After that, it was business as usual as far as my birding went. My doctor was surprised how quickly I healed.
We took a family trip to the South Dakota Badlands and Black Hills in 1996, just after I’d had gall bladder surgery the old fashioned way, and again, who can think about even the most excrutiating post-surgical pain when you’re looking at your lifer Black-headed Grosbeak?
Now I am being given another opportunity to test out bird therapy. I just found out that a tiny lump under my arm—one that, based on a mammogram, MRI, and ultrasound sixteen months ago was judged to be a benign subcutaneous cyst—is actually a recurrence of breast cancer, this time invasive. (Six years ago, it was just a DCIS.) When it got punched out by my dermatologist, it looked like any other fatty tissue cyst, so everyone was as surprised as I was that it was cancerous.
My head was swimming as I read the MyChart pathology report on my computer, but right then good old BB, my banded Pileated Woodpecker, flew in. Nothing changed, yet somehow I felt a surge of reassurance.
None of my birds—not BB, not my two Blue Jays sticking around this season, not any of my chickadees—know if they’re even going to make it till tomorrow. We like to think they’re “free as a bird” from such concerns, but really, no one has ever determined with any certainty how aware of mortality birds may be, or how much they feel anxiety or worry. All I know for sure is that they have the capacity to ease my own anxiety and worry.
Until I meet with the surgeon Wednesday, get scheduled for surgery, and find out what that pathology report says, I won’t know what my treatments will involve. They may continue well into 2024, so I’ve cancelled all my live speaking engagements. This is a good time to retire from that anyway—I’ve always been enough of an introvert that I leave my talks exhausted and depleted and sometimes can’t accomplish much of anything useful for a day or two afterwards.
But I’ll keep writing my blog and producing my podcast as I did the first time I had breast cancer and after my two heart attacks, and promise to keep the focus of “For the Birds” on birds. Surgery may make photography with my heavy camera a little tricky for a while, but that’s what tripods and monopods are for. And if I lose my hair (my one vanity), well, I know some Blue Jays who will consider that fair payback for my photographing them during their molts.
My “For the Birds” work will be a one-day-at-a-time thing now, but I feel like the luckiest person on the planet. Because again, right this very moment, guess who flew in! BB! (I’m sitting at my desk so this is an old photo.)
**I really am an introvert who deals much better with birds than with people outside my family. I have told very few people about this and already feel overwhelmed and exhausted by unsolicited medical advice. Despite 16 months of ignoring that “cyst” (papillary carcinomas are rare and can appear different than more typical cancerous lesions), the doctors I am dealing with are extremely competent and caring. I always feel an onerous sense of obligation to read and respond to people sending me thoughts and prayers and well wishes, and right now I want to use my limited time before surgery looking at birds and playing with my grandson. So let’s all pretend this isn’t happening, okay? I’ll know you actually read to the end of this if I don’t hear from you. ;-)