First Bird of the Year

Birders have a tradition that the first bird they see on New Year’s day will be their bird for the year. It’s a sort of theme for the year. Some serious birders will travel to exotic locales to try and make sure their first bird of the year is something spectacular, or at least something that they’ll be proud to knock off their life list (the list of birds they’ve seen). It’s part bragging rights for the hardcore listers, birders that seem to live for marking checks off their life list of birds. I’ve been a birdwatcher since college, but I’m not a serious lister. I’m not actually a serious birder, truth be told, but the tradition of first bird of the year is something I’ve kept, because I’ve added it to our path of faith.
We’re Wiccan, a nature based religion so it seemed a natural to use the idea of the first bird, or animal, of the year you see being a theme for the year. When I say, animal, I don’t mean your dog, cat, etc . . . unless it’s the only animal you see for hours. If you manage to not see any birds at all when there should be birds everywhere, then maybe the animal in question is your theme for the year. Two years running I saw nothing but squirrels for hours. One of the meanings of squirrel is to balance work and play, and for me I’d been doing too much work and not enough play. I’ve since fixed that imbalance with a vow last year to play as hard as I work. I’m doing it again this year, with a plan to play even more! I ended up finishing the newest Anita book earlier than I have in years, and I ended more energized and in better spirits than ever before, rather than exhausted.
So, what was my first bird of the year? It was a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Yes, it’s a real bird, not just a punchline for cartoons, or movies. I’ve only seen one of these birds ever, and it was in our backyard in the summer. It’s not a common bird here in Missouri, or at least not that I’ve seen. I’m always willing to believe that someone else’s bird viewing may vary from mine. It was a female, because of the lack of red on it’s head and neck, but even female yellow-bellied sapsuckers have some red on them, this bird had none at all. I looked up pictures of the bird and found that the juveniles can look like the females, but without red, so I thought, well than that’s it, but it wasn’t. The longer I looked at the bird, the more it’s colors looked crisp, and not dull, like the juveniles. I did some research and found that some females can have no color on their heads, and that the color is due, in part, to the bird’s diet. Western Tanager males get their amazingly bright colors from their diet, too, as other birds, as well. Cedar Waxwings’ diet can change whether they have yellow, or red, tipped feathers. Sometimes if we don’t eat enough of what’s good for us, we lose some of the color in our lives.
The above explanation is because not only did I see a yellow-bellied sapsucker, but it had to be the same female, because she had the same markings, or lack thereof. I get on the Cornell site for birds, which is always my first stop on the internet, once I’ve used my bird guides to identify the bird. Peterson’s guide is still my favorite, but I also have the Audubon guide, as well. The Cornell site has interesting facts about the birds, and I find them helpful for possible insights into what the bird might mean. Though, I go to the Ted Andrews’ books Animal-Speak, and Animal-Wise first, but if it’s a bird that’s not in the books, or I just want more possible insights from the natural behavior of the bird.
So, what does it mean that yellow-bellied sapsucker was my first bird of the year? Ted Andrews talks about it meaning that you need to pay attention to the sweetness in your life, the hidden sweetness, since sapsuckers have to drill holes in trees to get to the sap. Though unsightly the holes aren’t supposed to be harmful to the tree. Deep holes, the bird uses it’s long tongue to reach the sweetness, but they also make rectangular holes near the surface of the tree where they just remove the first layers of bark so that sap fills the hole and they lap it up, and they also eat the cambium layer of the bark, and will come back and check the holes to eat insects that come to eat the sap and are trapped in it, sort of insects in amber, when they’re still fresh and yummy. They also drill holes in very orderly patterns. Other woodpeckers will drill here and there and are attracted to dead, or insect riddled trees. Woodpeckers don’t cause insects to attack trees, they actually will eat them out of the injured bark, and help keep the tree healthy for longer, but sapsuckers feed on living trees. Dead wood has no sap, so they need living, growing trees for their food.
What I’ve taken from the above is that I need to work for the sweetness in my life. Sometimes it’s just below the surface, and sometimes it’s deeper and harder to find, but it’s worth the work, and I need it to survive. I need the sweetness and joy in my life to thrive and be happy. I know that seems self-evident, but in years past I have lost sight of that. All work and no play meets some deadlines, but eventually it uses up the writer until the very well of creativity that you counted on dries up from lack of being refilled. You can’t just take water out of the creative well, you have to either put some in, or allow the well time to fill up on its own either through rain, or water seeping up from below. Like the sapsucker there are different ways for the creative imagination to fill up; either dig deep and get the sweetness near the center, or shallow and eat the living “bark”, sweet sap, and more protein (substantive) food will be attracted to the sweetness you’ve made in the tree. I’m taking that the more I work to bring creativity and the fun things into my life, near the surface of my life so its visible and not as hidden deep in the tree, the more food I will I have, and the better I will feel, do, be. Also, that there should be more than one way for me to get sweetness into my life and my work. I need to be flexible enough to do what works, deep round holes, or shallow rectangular ones, but I still have a pattern, a rhythm, an orderliness that works for writing, and for having fun in my life. Flexible orderliness is what I’m calling it. Years ago I would be too wedded to a schedule, and anything that disrupted it threw me horribly out of my writing schedule, but I’ve learned to be more flexible, in this last year, especially, I’ve learned to go with the flow of whatever wonderful, exciting, craziness is happening in my life. This year is going to be more of the same, I think, and that’s a good thing. Also, it is significant that sapsuckers feed on living, growing trees, unlike other woodpeckers. My sweetness and creativity come from things that grow, change, and are not static. I need to embrace that and not be afraid of the growth that will come in this next twelve months. Change used to really throw me, but I’m getting better at it, and this was a message that more is coming, but it’s all good.
Now, here’s the trick to all this animal message, or totem, guide stuff. You could have seen a yellow-bellied sapsucker and taken a completely different message from it. It’s all about what feels right for you, what your inner sense of rightness tells you. Some scholars over the centuries have called it our conscience, or even the voice of God telling us what is right, what is wrong. You have to be still enough, quiet enough in your head to listen, to truly listen. If you are too busy moving around, bustling, talking, lost in activity, the message can get garbled or lost all together. As a Wiccan I believe that the power and beauty of God and Goddess is all around us, that nature is that physical manifestation of Deity. We walk through the power of creation every day. We are surrounded by miracles, but most of us hurry past and never see them. It’s the old idea that there are angels walking amongst us, but you have to be open to the possibility that they exist and are present to have any chance of seeing them. The same goes for any message from Deity, you have to listen, you have to be aware that Deity really does talk to us, not in a flare of trumpets, or a angel in white robes and huge wings, that is possible, but God isn’t so flashy most of the time, I think. I didn’t need something that spectacular, just a little black and white bird, to be reminded that I need to work for sweetness in my life in the coming year, to be flexible in my orderliness and schedule, and that some creativity would come from deep inside, but some of it would be closer to the surface, and that it would have different shapes and sizes, but it was all about keeping it organized, though to others it may look like I’m just hitting my head against a tree.
I hope everyone had fun seeing their first bird, or animal, of the year, and that whatever comes our way we see the lessons we need to learn, do the work we need to do, and walk our path this year in the most positive and productive way possible.

Posted by at 3:41:31 pm on January 3, 2012

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