Summer/Fall 2020

The exterior of the house was speckled with round holes slightly larger than silver dollars. Seventeen in all, so perfect a compass could have been used to create them. Prior to the closing, the home inspector told us they were deserted woodpecker holes; the birds would probably not return until spring (it was August). He said the holes weren’t a big problem since the birds had not drilled into the insulation; we just needed to plug them and buy some chimes. I considered the presence of the birds a good sign. If I believed in totem animals, mine would be a bird, though maybe not a woodpecker. I was almost sorry that we couldn’t live communally with the winged creatures. It would be nice to pull into the gravel drive and see birds flying in and out of the walls of our house, nice to sit on the deck and see a black head with a brilliant red Mohawk emerge from an opening, though I know the kind I’m imagining is a Pileated, too big for the holes (plus, I’m told they usually drill square and rectangular openings, not round ones).  But no matter the kind, I understood that woodpeckers most likely don’t respect boundaries any more than the alley rats do in Chicago where we live most of the time.

Friends Doreen and Re’Lynn, who live year-round in Michigan, recommended a handyman, Bill, who filled the holes. My friend, Elizabeth, suggested repellent streamers—like the iridescent-rainbow ribbons that flow from the ends of tricycle handles. I bought a large spool and cut off sections to tie around the porch railings and trees near the house. They flicker and shimmer like sadly incomplete birthday party decorations. In the spring, I planned to buy chimes as well.

Buying this hole-riddled cottage on a country road in southwest Michigan was one of the few good things about the pandemic. We live in Chicago. For the last twenty years, I have talked about wanting to do this—buy a second home out of the city, feel my toes in the grass again. For the same amount of time, my Brooklyn-born husband has talked about not wanting to move out. He likes cities and doesn’t like repairs, yard work, or added expenses. For a good long time, we loved the Victorian-era three-flat that we bought before we married. About five years ago, we sold the three-flat (planning for the future when it would be too many stairs to reach our top floor duplex apartment and too many rats in the back alley) and purchased a vintage condo in Chicago, farther east, close to Lake Michigan. Though we loved the condo as well, the purchase seemed to signify that a large part of our story had ended. No more minimal yard work for our city lot. No more stairs. We acquired an elevator with our own private lobby. Doormen. No rats. Not even a spider. We were officially past middle age. Our next move—hopefully a long way off—would presumably be unpleasant, either to a retirement home or the cemetery.

When the pandemic came, everything we loved about the city halted.  Museums. Theater. Restaurants. Lincoln Park and access to the lake was fenced off for social distancing, limiting our urban contact with nature. People in our building came down with COVID. Residents wondered who they were; I was glad the management company did not release the names. Later, our favorite doorman, a golfer, and deadhead on his off days, would die from COVID. He was 59.

My husband agreed to look for a country place.

Birds have always intrigued me. The way they tilt their heads. The beady quickness of their eyes. Their hard beaks. I love the way that so many seem to stand at attention, their chests pushed out—like humans without arms. As a girl of six or seven, I made my first birdhouse out of a shoe box after discovering an overturned robin’s nest. The eggs had recently hatched, and four chicks lay in the grass, tufts of sprouting feathers damp against their translucent skin. I could see their tiny hearts beating. The way they held their wide beaks open—in the shape of diamonds, yellow along the rims, a salmon pink inside—touched something deep inside me. Their desperate hunger moved me.  Still does. In the shoe box, I drew curtained windows on the walls and placed the appropriate number of pink plastic molded dollhouse beds inside. I put each bird on a bed, its head on a hard pillow, and covered each with a single square of toilet paper as a blanket.

In the morning, I found them all dead, stuck to their beds by their melting fascia.

We had probably viewed twenty houses when it occurred to us that maybe going into strangers’ houses with an agent we had met during the pandemic was not wise. We vowed it would be our last day of looking when we came across a cottage-y saltbox house (above our price range), taupe-colored with white trim, set about a half-acre back from the road. Two friendly blue Adirondack chairs sat on the front porch, angled toward one another as if in conversation. A flagstone patio skirted one side of the house, and a wide deck ran along the back. Across the deck from the house were stairs (similar to those we had escaped at the three flat) that led to a guest room above the garage with a bathroom and a screened porch. Yoga mats lay about the screened porch floor, and a Buddha statue sat on a small ice box. I stood on the porch and felt like I was in a tree house. I imagined a small wooden table with a chair; I imagined sitting there and writing as I looked out over tree tops. A fledgling sassafras, some pines, a few maples, and many, many oak trees. A half-acre. I imagined doing yoga when I became stiff from writing. We didn’t notice the holes on that first visit.

The interior of the house was small, though all white with an open plan that made it seem larger. The steep slope of the roof allowed for a cathedral ceiling in the dining/kitchen area, which added to the sense of space. The side of the room with the lower ceiling held a fireplace and stairs leading up to two bedrooms with slanted ceilings. It was not what we had described we wanted to our realtor (no stairs, we said, no slanted ceilings in bedrooms as my husband is claustrophobic, not over $____), yet we could see ourselves there. Our agent called in our offer, and we sat on the white sofas, waiting for the verdict. The owner’s agent (the former mayor of our new nearby small town) called back with a counter offer that included all the furniture. The seller, a cancer survivor, needed to move to an even smaller place. I looked around; we could live with this furniture. How had we planned to buy furniture for an empty house during the pandemic anyway? I guess we hadn’t.

Doreen and Re’Lynn gave us a hummingbird feeder as a housewarming gift. During our first month, the last month of summer, only a few birds found the feeder before I had to store it for winter; if hummingbirds have a steady food supply, they forget to migrate. I like their long nector-sucking beaks but not as much as the hard seed-seeking beaks of robins and finches, though still, it is beautiful to see the rapid whirring of their wings, creating visual trails, keeping their compact bodies aloft. Next summer, I planned to install more feeders around the yard, so that I could see different kinds of birds—warblers and bluebirds and cardinals—from the back deck, from the elevated screened porch, and from the blue Adirondack chairs in the front. Maybe have two feeders hanging from the perfectly shaped beech tree close to the driveway. Perhaps a feeder full of thistle to attract goldfinches. We had a finch feeder on our back porch for a while at our three three-flat in the city. I was impressed by how quickly they arrived, and how many yellow bodies clung like barnacles to the holes of the translucent cylinder feeder. I heard them singing. New restaurant in town! I loved watching them until our downstairs tenants complained that their porch was getting saturated in bird poop, and I know that any kind of animal excrement attracts rats, a long-time issue in our city lot.

For many years, I have collected replicas of birds—drawings of them, carved birds, paper birds, pottery ones, all types of birds. I tell myself to quit. I don’t want to be that sort of collector, like the woman with hundreds of kooky cookie jars or the man with a room for his baseball memorabilia. But I can’t stop myself, something about the tilt of a bird head or the glint of an eye, as if the bird is checking you out. I purchased a long sepia-colored lithograph of a procession called “The Starling’s Funeral” by writer and artist Audrey Niffenegger. The print depicts a dead starling in a glass hearse being pulled by two horses and two horse-sized birds while a crowd of birds looks on.  I carried home on the plane a wooden bird cage that I found in a market in Mexico with two wooden painted birds perched on a swing inside. Sara gave me a Barbie doll replica of Tippi Hedren from the Birds; still in her case (in my faculty office, where I haven’t been since March 2020). The doll wears an avocado-colored suit; a crow’s beak is clamped to a hip, another to a shoulder, and a third is tugging on her synthetic champagne-colored hair. Vicky gave me a birdhouse shaped like a bird, the entrance hole in the bird’s breast. Sharon S gave me a blue glass hummingbird on her last trip to Mexico, Sharon E, a flat tin one, wings spread in flight. My sister and Elizabeth have given me prints of birds. I hung a birdhouse from Kaitlin outside, and a woodpecker drilled a larger hole above the manufactured one!

Now at least with both the condo and the salt box, I can divide my collection in two places. The first bird item I took to Michigan was an orange-rimmed plate featuring the image of a woodpecker that Sandi gave me.

The woodpecker on the plate most resembles a pileated, but I think it is more of an invented woodpecker, a hybrid, like the cartoon character, Woody, who is a mix of various woodpeckers. I’ve read that his creator, Disney cartoonist Lantz Hardaway, was inspired by a woodpecker whose tapping kept him and his wife awake on their honeymoon. Reportedly, he wanted to shoot it, but his wife suggested he make the bird into a character. He had lots of species from which to draw. According to the International Ornithological Committee (IOC), the Picidae family comprises 238 species of woodpeckers.

Summer/Fall 2021

Friends wondered if we would regret buying a house in the country once the pandemic ended. That is one of the nice things about being older—less time for regret, less money needed for the future. Plus, the pandemic does not seem to be completely disappearing soon.  I have had to cancel many trips during the pandemic, but this round trip is always there—along a tree-lined route to the country and back to skyscrapers in the city. We are often alone but always going somewhere.

Woodpeckers did not return in the spring, at least not to the walls of our house. I liked sitting on the deck alone, listening to them drumming trees in the distance. They are not all making nests; some are looking for food, communicating with others, or establishing their territory. And I’ve heard that some simply like the sound of the noise they make. My streamers seemed to be working; I didn’t even bother with chimes.

I bought birdfeeders, hung some from trees near the back deck and put a few on poles in both the back and the front. Bill, the carpenter/handyman/artist, looked at the poles and said, “The squirrels will get them.”  I wondered aloud how they would manage since there was no place on the thin, smooth pole for critters to gain purchase. The next day when I got out of bed, a squirrel clung upside down from one of the feeders, tilting it for easier access to the food. He virtually poured the seeds into his mouth, emptying the feeder.

When I was a kid, Woolworths sold live chicks dyed various pastel colors around Easter. The tiny fuzzy chicks—pink, powder blue, and pale green—were all crowded into a low-walled bin near the cash registers, dozens of them loudly chirping. Their little beaks pointed up, opening and closing, showing the contrast between their velvety insides and their hard little mouths as they cheep, cheep, cheeped.  I desperately wanted to purchase one, but my mother refused.  “They will just die,” she said. My mother seemed cold to me, and her reason sounded inconsistent. We had always been allowed to keep the goldfish we won at fairs by tossing a ping pong ball into their small bowls. They died, and we flushed them down toilets. Yes, it would be more difficult to dispose of a dead chick. But I thought that perhaps we could save the colorful chicks, and grow them into chickens; they had a better chance of survival than the fish in their little coffee-cup-sized bowls. Though on reflection, I supposed she wanted a full-grown pink chicken even less than a dead goldfish.

In the fall, we arrived one weekend, dropped our bags in the house, and then jumped to hear a loud banging from the armoire. How in the world did an animal get inside?  I stood a distance from the double doors, leaned forward, pulled one of the doors open, and leaped back.  Nothing. It took a moment to dawn on me—woodpeckers! I ran outside just in time to catch a black, gray and white woodpecker dart from the house, leaving a perfectly round hole. The woodpecker woke us up the next morning. Soon there was a second hole.

I hung more streamers, bought two sets of chimes and a fake owl, the most realistic-looking one in the garden shop, one with amber eyes, twice as expensive as the less detailed owls. I taped wings to the side of the owl so they would flap in the breeze. We were safe for the rest of that weekend, but the next time we came, there was a third hole. Janet told me that the Indian spice asafetida had solved their woodpecker problem. I put some on the end of a broom and wiped the holes and surrounding areas with it. Every time I heard tapping, I ran out of the house to smack the side of the house with a broom.  At first, the little woodpecker would dart off into the trees. Now, he just flutters up the roof, curls his clawed feet around the gutter, and looks down at me, tilting his head as if to say, “Are you almost finished with your fit? I need to get back to work.”

Not all woodpeckers migrate, but I have read that climate change has modified their migration habits. In fact, most migrating birds no longer have the same patterns. According to studies, their bodies are also growing smaller in size, and their wing spans are expanding, the better to migrate distances. At an exhibit at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, I learned that whole species of beautifully feathered birds were slaughtered in the 1890s to provide plumes for women’s hats.

I want to atone for my childhood mistake with the baby robins, for humankind’s treatment of all birds. I want to provide a sanctuary for birds while preserving our new house. Humans have not been kind to birds. But for the first time, I saw birds as predators, not quite as bad as those who preyed on Tippi Hedren, though not just lovely creatures for my pleasure and amusement. For next summer, I have found a house paint called Beakguard.

An online site called Spirit Animals said woodpeckers portend change: “…woodpecker symbolism is letting you know that it is time to pay attention because an opportunity has come knocking along with it… the woodpecker meaning is signaling you that significant changes are happening in your life. Therefore, it is up to you to seize the moment.”

Could there be a more auspicious symbol for buying a house—when we thought we were done with houses—than a bird that tells you to seize the moment? A sign that the story hasn’t ended yet.

Photo by Bernal Fallas on Unsplash

Garnett Kilberg Cohen

Garnett Kilberg Cohen has published three collections of short stories, most recently Swarm to Glory. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The New Yorker online, American Fiction, TriQuarterly, The Rumpus, The Gettysburg Review, The Antioch Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Black Warrior Review, Brevity, and others. Her awards include two Notable Essay citations from Best American Essays, the Crazyhorse National Fiction Prize; the Lawrence Foundation Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review; and four awards from the Illinois Council of the Arts. She is a professor at Columbia College, Chicago.