A Field Guide of Birds and Grace

SANDPIPERCalidris himantopus.
Voice: A single whu.

The last time I saw a sandpiper I was in San Diego, sitting on the beach fully clothed and watching those nervous, light-footed birds skitter across the sand. Their legs move so fast they seem to levitate just above the ground, hovering without the use of wings, defined by quickness and brevity and indecision. That trip, I played bocce ball, picked up broken, spotted shells and stones, and climbed down cliffs to the cold, salty Pacific foam. At night, floodlights poured over the beach like second and third diaphanous moons while my boyfriend and I made rudimentary shadow animals and danced. I ate expensive fish with his mom, like the end of a strange dream.

Sandpipers are bustling little prayers, lacking any sort of magnificence, like small hand-written thank-you notes or post-its left on the fridge as reminders to buy butter, cardamom, brown sugar. I want to hold a sandpiper’s quivering body in my hands and whisper that I envy its hollow bones and speckled eggs and obsidian eyes. The sandpiper is a grace note, not graceful, but a half second hesitation between intentionality and improvisation, a lukewarm grace.


AUSTRALIAN BUDGERIGAR; Melopsittacus undulates.
Voice: Chattering, chirping.

I used to hold parakeets on my fingers and shoulders, and feel the weight of their grace seeping into my body. When I put my finger against their down-covered, cloudlike bellies, they would lift one reptilian-esque foot onto it, then the other, and speak to me in their clicking languages, mysterious messages earnestly spoken to my unfamiliar ears. My ears which they would gnaw on with their hooked beaks, making a meal out of the decaying skin cells. The feeling of their warm, quick heartbeats against my skin is one of unusual vulnerability, as if I were becoming acquainted with two silken angels. Their bodies were as delicate as fragile porcelain figurines illuminated with breaths of pastel pigments, looking like they had rolled in a box of paints, the one Joni Mitchell sings about.

I remember when they died, I felt their spirits sink into me, and I grasped at the the amorphous concept of death for the first time. Their poor lifeless forms that had been defined by such rambunctious cacophonies were so still, their vivacity torn asunder in a single moment. Now I imagine cradling those bird corpses, their blood coalescing in my hands, creating a pool of grace.


LARK SPARROW; Chondestes grammacus.
Voice: A broken song; clear notes and trills with pauses between; characterized by buzzing and churring passages.

I have the bad habit of disturbing large groups of birds congregating together in open spaces, originating from the time I was six years old and saw a conglomeration of sparrows in my front yard. My dad and I were watching them silently. They hopped around the grass gently. I threw open the front door and sprinted outside into the birds, waving my arms and yelping as the sparrows leapt into the air in synchronized motion. I remember my dad scolding me in his pajamas that morning, yes, but the visceral moment of being surrounded by birds in flight has yet to depart my memory, too. I can’t help itching to be surrounded by birds, feeling like I too could lift my feet off the ground and escape in a flurry of motion, leaving this human corporeality in exchange for levitating grace.

I watch sparrows rise and fall like vibrant suns, making elegant parabolas in the sky. “At dawn I have birds, clearly divine messengers that I don’t understand, yet day by day feel the grace of their intentions” writes Jim Harrison.Maybe birds are the mediators of prayer between earth and heaven and carry our thoughts away, clairvoyant beings interacting with other realms. When my grandfather died I thought of what prayer I would send to him. Nothing came to mind, no message to relay. Only a memory of when he would cut up peaches with sunrise-stricken flesh into a bowl and cover them with milk and sugar. What a graceful meal that was, how useless, how beautiful.


STARLING; Sturnus vulgaris.
Voice: A harsh tseeer, a whistled whooee.

Starlings seem to embody the otherworldly glisten of constellations, as if graced with the dust of stars or nebulas, or Saturn’s many moons. I found a dead starling on the sidewalk a few months ago and admired its glossy wings, flecked with the galaxy, even though I knew that they’re invasive creatures.

I wished that the starling I found could have a proper funeral, though. Like Mozart’s pet starling, the aptly named Vogelstar, which Mozart mourned at its death with a rapturous elegy. I think of my own impending mortality. I hope to be cremated, returned to the fine dust that I think I came from, whether stardust or otherwise. If grace is, as Pope Francis teaches, “the amount of light in our souls,”2 then seeing as birds appear to be the most graceful of species, they must be those with the most light.

In some unnamed field, I watch the light-infused, supernal starlings, swirling in their murmurations, and imagine as I have over and over again, what it could feel like to be so inordinately, desperately, gracefully, heavenly.


This post was written by Maren Loveland, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.

[1] Harrison, Jim. “Age Sixty-Nine.” Poetry Daily, http://poems.com/poem_print.php?date=14363.

[2] Pope Francis. Interview, “How the Church Will Change.” Repubblica, http://www.repubblica.it/cultura/2013/10/01/news/pope_s

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  1. Lydia Theobald says:

    So beautiful.

  2. Keith Lawrence says:

    Thank you, Maren, for sharing this wonderful meditation on grace.

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