Karen J. Weyant
What Was Reflected
That July, my mother broke out the bottles, and the sharp smell of white vinegar spilled through my summer.
She dotted the floor by the cat food to deter ants from their afternoon snacks, and dabbed at my brothers’ T-shirts trying to get rid of the sweat stains.
And she cleaned windows. She soaked old newspapers in vinegar and wiped the glass clean until there were no smudges or streaks. An old wives’ remedy, she said of her cleaning concoction.
Then, she declared war on my skin. I had a redhead’s complexion, pale until I spent time in the summer sun, then red and raw with splotches of freckles splattered across my nose and cheeks. Vinegar, she said, makes a sunburn fade without peeling. It makes freckles disappear.
Hating the smell, I tried to stay out of her way. Not yet ten, I was still a tomboy, still pokey elbows and sharp knees, still all edges that failed to smooth out. Always ready to play rough with my brothers and the neighborhood boys, I wore bruises and cuts and scraped knees to prove it. I didn’t care about freckles or the way my skin peeled.
I grew to know the whirlwinds of her routine: mornings smothered in a sharp smell that burned through my nose and every glass pane clear without streaks. For weeks, robins and sparrows plummeted towards our home, crashing in the reflections.
What they see isn’t real, she explained, coaxing one stunned bird to fly, picking up another still body by its tail to drop it into the trash.
Every year, millions (some say billions) of birds die because of window collisions. Many believe that next to habitat destruction, these collisions are the biggest killer of birds in the United States. For home windows, songbirds are especially vulnerable, as they fly lower to the ground. Incapable of seeing reflections, they fly straight into windows thinking they are merely navigating a world they already know: trees and bushes, shrubs and lawns, puddles and wood piles. That forsythia bush that blossoms yellow in the spring. Morning glories wrapped around a chain-linked fence. A paint-chipped back porch banister. A wooden picnic table splintered at the corners.
Anything could send birds a flutter impairing their judgment. A sudden noise in the neighborhood like squeals from a children’s game of tag or the honk of a car horn. Or a glimpse of a predator, such as a stray cat or even a Cooper’s Hawk, a raptor known for finding its way into backyards where birdfeeders line garden landscapes.
But residential homes are not the only culprits when it comes to birds and window collisions. City skylines may be picturesque, but they can also be deadly. Skyscrapers and office buildings built with mirror glass reflect the blue sky and clouds, making it impossible for birds to see the differences between office space and their path in the sky. Windows lower to the ground reflect trees and shrubs that look like safe havens for birds.
Project Safe Flight, an organization out of New York City, is dedicated to collecting data about bird collisions as well as educating the public about proper architecture and lighting that won’t attract birds. Because many of the bird deaths happen in the spring and fall during migrations, volunteers collect both injured birds and bodies during these times of the year. Since 1997, over 5,000 dead birds have been collected. The number one species killed? The White Throated Sparrow.
A quick Google search brings tips from multiples Internet sites about avoiding bird collisions. Most of these sites share some common themes:
1. Use curtains
2. Use window blinds
3. Place decals on the glass
4. Don’t wash your windows
There are disagreements about where to place bird feeders (and if a specific placement of birdfeeders does indeed influence the number of bird collisions with windows). Some experts believe that the farther away the better, while others state that if a birdfeeder or birdbath is less than three feet away from a window, birds will not build up enough speed for a serious injury if they are startled and fly into the glass.
We have a huge picture window that overlooks our backyard lined with pine trees. I seldom wash this window, not because I am worried about birds, but because I forget. When I do remember, I notice the season’s remnants in the cobwebbed corners – brown crumbled leaves, a white wisp of a dandelion seed, even the occasional spider body, its dried legs crumbled into what looks like tiny fists.
I work on the glass with Windex or Glassworks or whatever other commercial glass cleaner I have stored under my kitchen sink.
I don’t use vinegar. I don’t like the smell.
But no matter how hard I try, I can’t get a clean window. What is left in front of me is streaked and smudged glass that looks worse than before I started. Not even the most careless, startled or whimsical bird would mistake my window for part of their world.
Still, I find myself looking at the ground. Sometimes, I know, birds don’t hit the glass hard enough for the impact to kill them. They drop to the ground stunned, vulnerable to predators.
A stunned bird will sometimes recover. However, here are many times, no matter the care given, the bird will often succumb to its injuries.
St. Francis, the Patron Saint of Animals, is often seen as a garden ornament. Many portrayals, both in pictures and in statues, show him cradling a bird in his arms. In one story, St. Francis speaks to a forest full of chatty birds, beckoning them to praise their maker and give thanks for their beautiful wings and feathers. It has been said that St. Francis could still a flock of chattering birds with a prayer or a wave of a hand.
My Aunt Mary, a devout Catholic, had a statue of St. Francis in her backyard garden. She would spend hours tending to her garden, sometimes cleaning the bird dropping off her lawn ornaments. She didn’t use curtains or blinds, and to my knowledge, she rarely placed decals in her windows with the exception of Easter, where stickers of colored eggs and crosses were plastered to her windows.
Besides being a devout Catholic, she was also a fastidious cleaner.
Yet, I don’t remember her ever complaining about bird collisions. One wonders if her St. Francis statue, when we were not looking, waved the birds away from her streak free windows.
In fictional scenes of oncoming apocalypses, birds are often seen as the first elements of nature to run amok. See the scene in the 2004 Science fiction clunker, The Core, where thousands of birds interrupt a typical day in London, flying through office windows and crashing through car windshields. The reason for the disorientation? Earth’s molten core is slowly melting, affecting the earth’s rotation, which in turn, is somehow causing all the confusion.
See also a similar scene in Karen Thompson Walker’s novel The Age of Miracles where Julia, the young narrator, describes the chaotic scene found in her world, two weeks after society finds out that the earth’s rotation is slowing down: “You’d find pigeons scrambling on sidewalks, wings dragging, feathers scraping the sidewalk as they walked. Sparrows were dropping on lawns. Flocks of geese were seen traveling great distances on foot. The bodies of seagulls were washing up on the beaches. Birds were found dead on our streets and our rooftops, on our tennis courts and our soccer fields. The fowl of the air were falling to the earth.”
Bizarre bird behavior is the main plot in Alfred Hitchcock’s, The Birds, a film that is usually not seen as apocalyptic, but with ominous scenes such as crows striking a playground of children or sparrows funneling through a chimney to attack a family in their living room, a viewer can’t help but catch end-of-the-world undertones. But before the attacks, two characters Melanie Daniels (played by Tippi Hedren) and Annie Hayworth (played by Suzanne Pleshette) are interrupted by a single gull that flies full force into the front door, killing itself. Poor thing, Annie comments seeing the twisted body on her front porch. It must have lost its way in the dark. Melanie corrects her by responding, But it’s not dark out Annie, there’s a full moon. The two women stare off into a blue-black night. A perfect moment of foreshadowing.
That summer, I fought to avoid my mother, already sensing some kind of distance between us. I was considered a mid-life crisis baby; my mother had me when she was 42 years old – not unheard of in today’s age, but by the standards of the early 1970s, certainly unusual.
Even at a young age I knew this – perhaps it was because new friends misunderstood her as my grandmother and not my mother. Perhaps it was because she never played with me like other mothers did. Or perhaps it was the fact that I never knew my mother without gray hair. Even now, when I look back at old photographs, her hair was always gray. Considering that her youth was captured only in black and white photographs, it was impossible for me to imagine her with her natural brown hair.
It seemed to me that we had nothing in common. Yes, it’s probably true that most young children see very little in common with their mothers, but somehow the realization had already hit me that I didn’t think I ever would.
For days, I slid out the front door for afternoons of play before she had time to catch me, and on rainy days, I hid out in my bedroom. It wasn’t hard, really, to not get her attention. I was the youngest of a big family, and with a household of brothers and sisters, plus grandchildren and cousins, and even neighborhood kids wandering in and out of the front door, I could usually hide.
But not always.
One day she grabbed me by the arm, perhaps alerted by a ponytail gone eschew, the knot of a halter tie working its way loose, a shoelace that was untied. Or maybe she saw that my sunburned nose had started to peel.
She picked me up and set me on the kitchen sink. I was impatient. Jake Miller, who lived down the street, had promised to show me a cowbird. It lays eggs in other birds’ nests and then deserts them, he explained. When the eggs hatch, the baby cowbirds push the other birds out of the nest.
The concept of a mother bird deserting her young was foreign to me, especially at that moment when I was within the grasp of a hovering mother. Still, even more interesting was the actual description of the bird. With a name like a cowbird, I expected some kind of black-and-white patched bird, like the Holstein cows at Johnson’s farm where my mother purchased our eggs. But I had been corrected by Jake, who said a cowbird looked kinda like a crow, but with a brown head. I was certain that I had never seen this kind of bird strutting in our backyard or ransacking our birdfeeders. Or on the ground underneath my mother’s windows.
I squirmed, realizing that my only escape was to be patient and let my mother win. I watched as she reached for the white vinegar. Tipping the bottle, she dotted a paper towel and smoothed the last drops on my nose and cheeks. The scent singed my throat and made my eyes water. When one tear escaped, she brushed it aside with her thumb.
Then, she cupped my chin and stared closely, as if looking right through me for something that wasn’t there, as if trying to see some kind of reflections of herself in my face.