Sharon is an Asian-American content creator based in Austin.


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Caring the Most

I had been rescheduling joining another purple martin colony check due to this and that, but a few evenings ago, it finally happened. A woman that lives in the neighborhood near this colony checks it frequently, and after being bed-ridden due to an irritating cough and half-cold, I was looking forward to getting out of the house. The experience felt like a fun science field trip, and since it was just the two of us, I felt free to as many questions as I could. Observing birds is one of those things that I find oddly special, especially with someone you don't know, or when you're totally alone and happen to glance out your window.

As I parked my car, I was already regretting wearing long pants because I began to feel warm, but if I knew anything about bird outings, it's that I get eaten by mosquitoes (oh wait, that's anytime I go outside), and that tall grass and brush standing was likely. As I approached her, I noticed her pants and loose, long-sleeved chambray. "Hello! I was just watching them for a bit," she said after I introduced myself. We stood underneath the colony and gazed up at 24 homes, adult and first-year purple martins cheerfully flitting and perching all around. One held a small butterfly in his beak.

As she took out her keys and began to work on the lock, I perused her records, coded letters on a grid of estimated, actual, and projected dates. I tried to recall information from last time, but luckily, there was a key at the bottom of the sheet. She gave the pole a firm shake, the birds scattered, and she patiently cranked down the pulleyed system so that the highest homes were at elbow-height.

She began at gourd 14. "This one has 7 babies! I wanted to show you these first." "Are the babies violent?" "They're very calm." She opened the container and several hatchlings-- feathered, unmoving, and blinking-- quietly glanced at me. The cluster of feathers made them difficult to count, but she reached inside and moved them around, confirming 7 young were inside. I marked 7Y on the sheet next to 14, in agreement with the week before, and boxed the number with a pencil.

We continued around the entire colony, and although I prompted her with last week's numbers throughout, she remembered them. We glanced inside homes with babies just a few days old, their mouths opening to be fed at the warmth of sunlight. It was a bizarre sight. Birds two or three weeks old, larger yet still featherless, did the same, and those feathered and almost ready to fledge continued with their blinking. I thought about including a picture of this, but I realized that might be terrifying for some of you.

Attempting to subtract actual hatch dates from projected fledge dates to figure out the ages at each home was incredibly difficult because I had forgotten how to do math since I stopped unsuccessfully splitting group checks. Dates especially seemed impossible without visualizing a calendar, and traveling over the weekend threw me off even more. What day was it, even? Some homes still contained eggs, at that point would likely never hatch, and some were empty.

All the feathered babies from one home that was soaked were relocated into a shoebox she had prepared. As she replaced the wet brush inside with new dry brush, I was sent to gather live oak leaves from nearby trees for the bed. Eager for my task, I walked to the wide, shadowed base of the nearest tree and plucked the best dry leaves from the ground, stacking and edging them like Bicycle cards. As we replaced the babies, she asked me, "Would you like to hold one?" I carefully picked up a small bird, the shape of the tiniest football, said hello, and placed him inside the gourd. The way he clung to my finger and the wisps of shoebox bedding strangely reminded me of several pet hamsters we had growing up.

One particularly small hatchling she placed in my open palms. The baby bird, roughly two days old, wiggled around, and in that moment I was both fascinated and terrified. He wasn't very cute, but I was amazed at the tininess of his featherless wings and his delicateness. What if he hurt himself trying to move around? What if he fell off my hand? What if I got him sick? After all, I had just been scouting around for leaves. I suddenly felt watched, their parents surely keeping an eye on us from the sky or nearby trees, watching us handle their baby birds, and to some degree, trusting us enough to not attack us. I wondered what they thought we were doing, so regularly and without harm.

As we finished, she explained how the next time we return, we may have to bring socks on a string. Apparently, as you pull the colony back up, the older babies can get alarmed and bounce or stumble out, but since they can't fly yet... It was recommended to plug the gourd opening with the sock and pull it out after they calm down, about 5-10 minutes.

I was amazed that she did this regularly, and alone, and as I observed her care, it didn't seem like work so much as it was a hobby. She took her time, not rushing to go home or to be elsewhere. She admitted that she didn't know what she was getting into at first, not knowing that she may have even had to pick up birds. I admired the care that she took in the corner of this park--I mean, did you know that the time from hatch to fledge is 26 days?

Did you know that she began doing this only this summer, and if kids came by, she would let them see the baby birds? Did you even know those white gourds were localized communities, and that social standards explain which adults come back each year? Her previous email updates were full of excitement, updates, and numbers; some weeks she had checked multiple times. "66 Babies yesterday!" her email that day read.  It was unexpectedly therapeutic.

A month or two ago, our production lead shared with us after a service that no one cared more about each detail within our roles than each of us did, and how great it is to be in such company. I was reminded of an old acquaintance at the 9 A.M. that would chase down leaders to confirm exact lyrics, because they mattered and he cared enough to make it his responsibility. He saw that there was extreme value in correcting the very little details, and perhaps no one cared about it more than he did, and I appreciated that. I saw it in him, and I noticed it in her sole undertaking, and it inspired me.

"Well, this was great. It was so nice to meet you!" I told her, glimmering sweat lining our foreheads and the bridges of our noses. The male purple martin from before returned to perch immediately above us as soon as the gourds were back up in the sky, still patiently clasping the butterfly in his beak roughly an hour later.

She hung out a while longer in order to observe which birds brought food to which homes while I walked back to my car, my hands running over my new mosquito bites. Next time, I'd like to wear long sleeves.

That night, as I stayed up in lieu of sleep, I listened to the birds in our backyards faintly chirping, and they seemed to be singing a song.

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