Birds and Words

When I am in St. John (USVI) or San Pancho (Mexico), I am awakened by loud, rude roosters. On Cape Cod, boisterous turkeys in mass flock to my bird feeders early and vocally. Wherever, my day begins with birds.

After grabbing a mug of dark French roast coffee with nothing added to ruin it, I perch on my writing spot and start measuring how the day is going by birds and by words.

On a good morning, I will look out at the feeders and find six to ten Bluebirds chowing on the pricey mealy worms we buy each month. Their iridescent blue feathers contrasted with their fat peach bellies never fail to delight me. After waiting a lifetime, I saw my first Bluebird two years ago. It was love at first sight.

Other mornings, I will look up from my keyboard to find loud and annoying starlings not just at my feeder, but in it. While the Bluebirds will surround the platform and peacefully coexist while they dine, one fat ugly Starling will sit on the platform precluding anyone else from joining him while he stuffs himself.

Throughout most mornings, I am visited by cardinals, both Mr. and Mrs., a variety of woodpeckers, large and small, and other birds that only occasionally frequent my feeder. On the first day of spring, an elegant Red-winged Blackbird with his fiery epaulettes honored me with his presence and announced that spring had sprung.

Indigo Bunting

How do I get any writing done with birds plotting throughout the morning to distract me? It may not surprise you to learn that the words I produce are a little like the birds at my feeder.

There are those rare days when the ink flows prodigiously like on the days when Bluebirds swarm my feeder. My keyboard begins to feel like the keys on a piano and I am making music.

More often, I am stuck spitting out Starlings, one at a time, resenting their ordinariness and my lack of talent. Why do I bother putting up feeders and spending money on seed if I am only going to attract ugly belligerent birds? No one will want to read words that I write when I can’t even stand writing them.

On a rare day when I capture the plight of a character and transform it into a chapter that brings me to tears, I am satisfied by a limited number of words. I am enveloped by a calm acceptance that fashion experts advise comes because “less is more.” If a rare single Indigo Bunting were to appear at my feeder, I could endure the rest of the day filled with crass, raucous Blue Jays.

I listen to writing colleagues lament how low their word count was on a particular day, but perhaps those words were brilliant. Others will brag their word count was in the thousands. Fine, maybe they are amazing. But a “shitty first draft” is where most writers begin, Anne LaMott likes to remind us and has to be written “Bird by Bird.” (If you haven’t read Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and on Life, by Ann LaMott, take flight to your local bookstore. You won’t be sorry.)

When I measure the success of my writing day, I borrow the bird-by-bird method. Did Starlings clog my sluggish writing, or was it energized by the appearance of an occasional Indigo Bunting? Did I hit the sweetness a flock of Bluebirds can bring? Was there a rare moment of clarity delivered by a Red-winged Blackbird?

No matter how many words, or their quality, I know I can only write bird by bird and the rest is conceit.


  1. Those are great pictures! We have a ton of red winged blackbirds in our area, and they really are very elegant. There’s blue jays too. I have terrible eyesight and never wear my glasses, so mostly I depend on others to tell me something interesting is going on. Like buzzards on a roof…

  2. Gorgeous pictures!!! We shot a morning video last week, really for the audio. A foggy morning and amazing birdsong. It still makes my day even thinking about it. Of course a friend said, bluebirds. I need to up my birdsong recognition game!

  3. What a lovely start to your writing day! Mine starts in darkness. I’ve done my words for the day and noticed that the sun must have come up while I was working. Some bird flitted by but I have no idea what it was. A sparrow, maybe?

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