When I was in kindergarten, we had a lesson about "winter birds". For some reason, I vividly remember this lesson. We were told how most birds migrate south when the winter comes, but that some birds stay behind and know how to find food even in the snow. The three birds they told us about were cardinals, bluejays, and chickadees.
My fascination with birds would only be re-awakened much later in life, though.
I don't remember the very first time I saw a cardinal, but the earliest one I can remember, I was in my very early years of university. I was taking a solitary walk through the snowy woods surrounding Black Creek near York University, and the sudden appearance of that bright red bird amidst the grey surroundings took my breath away. I was used to tramping around in the woods during the spring and summer, but that day was my first winter walk. I was impressed by the silence of the woods, despite the infinity of falling snowflakes. But most of all I was impressed by the bright red apparition that could survive in this frigid cold and look so beautiful doing so.
A few years later, I was on another university campus, exploring the woodlots with my camera. I didn't know it at the time, but it was peak spring migration season, and the woods were full of fascinating little birds that were just passing through for those few weeks. I photographed what I could capture, and looked them up later.
I was especially taken by a little yellow fellow who I would later find out was a yellow warbler. I was amazed by his brightness. It was this little yellow bird that fully reignited the spark that had been lit back in kindergarten, and I fell in love with every bird I saw, slowly learning their mannerisms, their migration patterns, their flight patterns, their songs, and their unique quirks.
Several years later, and with many bird ID's now under my belt, I began to acquire a list of particular birds that I really wanted to see. The Baltimore Oriole was one of them. This beautifully bright orange bird called to me from the pages of bird field guides. Just like the brilliant blue of my first bluejay, the surprising red of every cardinal, and the delightful yellow of the yellow warbler, I longed to experience the glowing orange of this elusive (to me) bird.
It happened at Point Pelee, an important site in Ontario for bird migration. I was walking with someone, and I still remember the thrill, the breath caught in my throat, when all of a sudden, a flash of bright orange appeared amidst the emerging green buds on the trees. We stood still and watched the lovely orange fly around for a bit before it headed out of our sight.
It was a perfect day. A long awaited for occurrence, finally ingrained in my memory.
Later that day, I ended up having my heart broken. As I grappled with the news that had been revealed to me, my thoughts kept going back to that bright orange. The beautiful apparition now seemed tainted, something that I wanted to forget. How could something so profoundly beautiful be paired with something impossibly sad? The person I was with struggled to reassure me that the two things need not be paired, that I could still have my beautiful orange memory. I was not convinced.
It was many years before seeing an Oriole would bring me joy. The sight of one was often bittersweet, still tinged with the broken feelings from so many years ago.
Eventually, though, time did its magic, and I mostly forgot about the sadness. Orioles just became another fascinating bird that would colourfuly appear every spring.
Every year, the return of the Oriole is always exciting. It takes me a few days to realize that the unique whistling I've started hearing in the neighbourhood is my bright orange friend. I slowly realize that it is indeed the oriole's song, coming back to my winter-weary mind like a long forgotten memory.
I've been hearing it lately. I put out some cut oranges for it, but a squirrel promptly absconded with them, so I've just been watching the trees every time I hear that funny whistling, hoping for a glimpse. I've seen a few of the paler, yellow females, but the bright orange males have thus far eluded my sight.
Today I was walking along the lake at dusk, as dark clouds slowly rolled in. The beach was mostly empty, and the lake was calm. As I walked, I heard the whistling of the oriole in the trees. All of a sudden, those memories of that forgotten day suddenly returned. Not necessarily with the accompanying sadness, as the immediacy of the memory is long past, but with a faint nostalgia.
As I continued walking along the quiet lake, I listened to the oriole's sweet voice carrying across the beach. As was desperately wished for me long ago on that turning point of a day, the oriole was no longer paired with the ache of that day. The two have long since separated.
The oriole, without me realizing it, has become almost like a 'power animal' or totem. It has taken on the mythology of brightness out of dark times, of healing from grief, of the simple truth that sadness is not forever.
I have not always known that, but as the years have gone by, that truth slowly emerges a little more clearer each time, just like I slowly but eventually realize that the strange whistling I hear every May is the return of the oriole.
It doesn't hurt to have reminders. Birds, it seems, are mine.