What the birds tell me on my birthday

I turn 44 today. Like my father, who has a double 4 in his birth date, I am recreationally superstitious.

For my dad, it’s all about the numbers. He notices patterns and coincidences in birth dates, phone numbers and social security numbers while not putting any stock in what it all means.

And me — I look for bird omens, especially on my birthday.

A tall grey bird standing in water
A blue heron (but not the one I saw on my birthday). Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Last year, I saw a bald eagle on my 43rd birthday, so late in the day that Bill and I could barely make out the unmistakable white head and tail. Any day I see a bald eagle in Ithaca, especially flying over Cayuga Lake, is a special day, but I took this sighting at sundown on my birthday to mean something.

Sure enough, 2020-2021 was a year of soaring highlights: I married Bill, published two stories, and gave birth to a son — that last one a complete miracle; hoped for but not expected.

That eagle seemed to predict big things. I read the omen the way the year was going anyway — and the year produced more than I could have imagined.

So what do the birds say about my 44th year?

This morning, I walked a few miles with my six week old son in his carrier. He was about to get hungry, but I pressed on just a little farther to the Day Overlook (Cornell’s Botanic Gardens) and a staircase down to Fall Creek because I wanted to see the water.

I’m glad I made that decision. There in the shallow stream at Flat Rock were my birthday birds. Four of them, arranged in a tableau.

One blue heron stood sharp in hunting mode, while three white egrets roosted in a half circle, watching it. The blue heron stalked upstream, pointed bill and long neck bobbing efficiently, and struck the water. It came up with a large fish in its bill.

The egrets looked on primly, like shaggy-feathered angels.

A large white bird standing in water
A snowy egret (not one of the three I saw on my birthday). Photo by Sonia Nadales on Unsplash

My uncle, a painter, offered to give us painting in honor of Paul’s birth. Last week, Bill and I visited his Rochester, NY studio to choose one. Uncle Doug has a series going; he paints landscapes, then adds female figures dressed in white. The graces, he calls them. The figures signify the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

The three egrets in the stream looked like the graces in the paintings. Faith, hope and love, just waiting around, watching the blue heron go after and capture its heart’s desire.

What does it mean? What are these birds saying to me about the year to come?

Know what you want and stalk it skillfully. You will sometimes catch it.

Keep your eyes open for unexpected grace, like birds, waiting nearby.

One of these things is not like the others; can you guess which bird is doing his own thing?

As the kids’ song from Sesame Street clears my brain, I admit the bird tableau could mean nothing. It could simply be a memory I’ll hold in years to come of descending a wooded staircase to find four beautiful birds hunting fish while my son started to wiggle in his carrier, the way my 43rd birthday holds the memory of eating pizza and talking with my fiance about life goals while the sun went down on Cass Park. The rare sunset eagle sighting is a pin to hold the memory in place.

Three white birds standing in water
The three snowy egrets I saw on my birthday, in Fall Creek.

I’ll do my best to teach my son to be rational. To recognize patterns in numbers because numbers form patterns. To observe and identify birds because it’s a fun step in learning the natural world and our place in it. And, because I can’t help it, to form daily life into narrative; this is how we tell each other about our days, and how we discover our hopes, desires, fears, and goals.

I’m not really superstitious about birthday bird omens or anything else. I just believe in the magic of a good story, and the fun to be found in playing games with myself to spice up daily life.

And I do believe in grace: faith, hope and love hovering nearby whether we see it or not in any given moment. “Grace is spiritual WD-40, or water wings,” Anne Lamott writes. “The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and heals our world. To summon grace, say, ‘Help,’ and then buckle up.”

My birthday habit of looking for bird omens is really more like an annual check in. An attempt to connect the spiritual and physical realities of my life as time goes on. The recognition that my life does intersect in profound and prescient ways with the lives of my loved ones; an acknowledgement and thanks that there is a pattern to all of this after all.

In other words, a prayer.

I enjoy looking for these connections. I savor what I find.

For example, did you know that my father, my husband and I were all born in double digit years? And that my son was born, although in 2021, on a double digit date, the 22nd (of July)?

And that we saw a hummingbird the first time I took him for a walk after birth?

What do you suppose that means?

Baby wearing black
On my birthday, Paul wears a onesie from The Met: My attempt to nudge him into a life of art-making and story-telling.