Saturday, 15 August 2015



The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker


Dodos are an extinct species of birds. Rocs and phoenixes are mythical birds. Baseball’s 1934 Gashouse Gang and basketball’s Larry are examples of legendary birds (and if the 2015 Blue Jays stay hotter than a $2 gat, they may yet join the club). Albatrosses, eagles, ravens and rockin’ robins have been celebrated in fable, poetry and song. Woody Woodpecker, Heckle and Jeckle, and Foghorn Leghorn all made good livings starring in classic cartoons. My bird, the one I never flipped, is the yellow-bellied sapsucker.


My father’s parents were English. Provided I took the shortcut through the back alleys, they lived exactly halfway between my house and my elementary school. Nana made the best toasted cheese sandwiches in the world so I would often have lunch in their apartment instead of going home to peanut butter, Campbell’s soup and my frazzled, psychotic mother. My grandparents of course drank tea and it wasn’t just a beverage but a ritual – as were the daily episodes of Coronation Street. Their preferred brand of tea was Lipton. In the late 60s packages of Lipton tea included colour collector cards of North American birds. My never forgotten favourite was the yellow-bellied sapsucker, a musical mouthful of a handle for such a tiny, beaked creature.


My sister and her husband own a relatively remote retreat in Prince County, Prince Edward Island. The nearest town is Kensington, which is near Summerside, which reminds me of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Summer Side of Life,’ which reminds me that he did not play ‘Early Morning Rain’ when Ann and I saw him last November and that irked me at the time though I’ve since gotten over it, but not really, because I was reminded of Gord’s inadequate set list once again while Ann and I spent eight or nine quietly lovely days with Anne and Al on the Island.


The faces of my sister’s two elderly black cats are featureless in most lights, so the eyes have it. Two Marvin the Martians slunk about the old farmhouse, one looking permanently surprised and the other very, very angry. They ventured outside from time to time to eat grass so they could retch inside a little later on. Foxes, raccoons, skunks and rabbits roam the property, but it was the birds that intrigued me.


In Edmonton we keep three birdfeeders stocked and I informally track our various visitors with the aid of an illustrated guide: I can spot the difference between a purple finch and a common redpoll if I cheat and peek in our book. On the Island I was delighted to learn that my brother-in-law is like-minded, seed and suet hang from the trees. A bird book and a pair of binoculars were always close at hand on the front porch.


Hummingbirds thrummed and hovered at pistils and stamens like green garden hallucinations. Plump and astonishingly vibrant American goldfinches frolicked in the two birdbaths my sister tops up daily with captured rainwater. There was a splashy disturbance in one of them, at the cement pedestal bath closest to the crimson maple tree Anne had recently planted in memory of our Dad, an RCAF veteran who, perhaps fittingly, passed peacefully last Remembrance Day, aged 90. Al snatched up his binoculars and zoomed in.


‘That’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker,’ he said.


I said, ‘What? I’ve been waiting my whole life to see one.’


‘Your whole life?’

‘Well, at least since 1968. Gimme those.’ I peered through the lenses. Sure enough, there was an actual yellow-bellied sapsucker. I swear the bird was the exact same one rendered on the Lipton tea card. Well, well, well, I thought, and so we meet at last; I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment.

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