The first Thanksgiving after my divorce, I wound up at my sister’s in-laws’ for dinner. Along with their immediate family, they had gathered in other strays like myself, including three people from Britain.
There were bird feeders in the backyard, and we talked about the fact that I worked at the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell. Later, one of the Brits pulled me by the sleeve to the window.
“What,” she asked in a breathless voice, “is that?”
She pointed out the window and I looked, expecting some bland and difficult to recognize “little brown bird”, afraid I would disappoint her with my ignorance.
Sitting on the feeder was a blue and white bird with black markings on its face and a tall crest of blue feathers.
“It’s a blue jay,” I said in a tone of complete indifference. Where I grew up, blue jays are as common as coffee shops in Seattle.
She was undaunted by my world-weary attitude. “Wow.” A northern cardinal arrived and she asked me its name. She was just as excited to see it as she had been to see the jay. She grabbed her friends and they all stared out the window with their mouths hanging open as the jays and cardinals came and went.
Those red and blue birds that were so familiar to me looked exotic and tropical to the visitors from England. My ordinary was their extraordinary.
As I stared at the bright plumage of the birds and listened to their gasps of wonder, I promised myself I would remember that jays and cardinals are beautiful. I wouldn’t let the fact that I saw them all the time dull me to their beauty. I would not take them for granted ever again.
Only I did. I lived in New England for ten more years, and I saw jays and cardinals all the time without thinking back to the wonder those British travelers had felt.
I now live on the very western edge of the eastern blue jay’s territory, in a place where there are no cardinals at all. There are other lovely jays to see here, but they aren’t as striking as the blue jay I grew up with.
I was lucky enough to see an eastern blue jay last week. I spent a lot of time watching it through my binoculars, admiring the crisp black and white markings and the brilliance of the blue feathers on its head and back.
I gloried in getting such a good look at it. We have feeders up, but jays rarely come in to them. I often hear them calling when I take Dory on our walks, but to actually see one clearly is a treat.
I have learned again that blue jays are extraordinary. Now when I see one, I remember those Brits at Thanksgiving, and share their wonder at the beauty of a jay. I promise myself that I won’t take them for granted ever again.
I can’t wait until I get to see a cardinal.