Like many around my age then, in an untold year in the 1970s I found myself in third grade. I already felt all grown up. A big boy. One of the ruffians of adulthood who could look down on those puny first and second graders and, most notably, the tiny tots in kindergarten. And as third grade teachers are wont to do, our marvelous guide through those wee years took us headlong into the daunting task of learning about our local flora and fauna. It was during that journey that I met my favorite bird.
The red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Oh, you expected cock-of-the-rock or bald eagle or some other manifestation of untold beauty or power? Nope. It boiled down to a simple, common blackbird that caught my eye and somehow forever ingrained itself into my psyche as the most fascinating, marvelous, beautiful bird ever imagined. Maybe I just have simple tastes.
It goes without saying that I have a great deal of interest in and adoration for black birds, such as grackles, blackbirds, cowbirds, and crows and ravens (corvids). Most especially corvids. But that’s a subject for a later time.
As I sat in the bright classroom many years ago and colored my blackbird to make it look like the teacher’s example, the creature took on new life. Something about it captured my imagination. Something about it grabbed me and shook me and demanded that I look closer, that I look beyond the ubiquitous nature of these creatures and see what lay beyond.
Like other black birds, red-winged blackbirds make up in personality what they lack in showy colors and over-the-top patterns. Such life! Such vitality! And too often overlooked.
I don’t know precisely what it is about these birds that reaches inside me and holds me still. I don’t know why hawks are my medicine animals while these simple blackbirds are the avians I enjoy most. I don’t know why over the years, having seen so many other bird species, this one remains the most powerful inducer of smiles.
No, I don’t know any of those things. And I don’t care. All I know is that every time I see one—pretty much every day of the year—I become that third grader again, that awestruck boy captivated by a bird unequaled by any other.
[The unfortunate truth is that I take very few photos of red-winged blackbirds. I spend more time sitting and watching them than I do photographing them. I guess I’m selfish that way, always keeping the joy to myself rather than sharing it, which sounds a lot like a third grader I used to know.]