The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Birds Ethiopian and American, big and small, bizarre and common as salt

In Pittsburgh, my family and I took ourselves over to the National Aviary in the park near my daughter’s apartment.  You didn’t know America had a national aviary?  Well, it does.  And it has eagles and parrots and birds I never knew were in this world.

I’ve written before about how I didn’t have my eyes and heart opened to birds until Jim McCoy took me to Mount Auburn Cemetery and showed me how to use a pair of binoculars–until he talked about his Life List and wrote me emails about bird sounds…the Gray Catbird, with its mewing call; the Whippoorwill–alas, uncommon to stumble across in the Massachusetts suburbs; the Carolina Wren, which (he agreed) does sound quite a bit like “tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle.”  Last weekend, as I watched the little birds in the aviary, I thought about what I learned (things Lanie learns in her stories) about how to identify something that sometimes only gives you a tiny clue: a call or a brief glimpse.  (Luckily, in the aviary, the patient birds offer robust glimpses and whoosh so close you feel their wing-wind.)

My aviary visit drove something else home.  I stood for a long time, watching these flamingoes and remembered I actually did give my heart to birds in Ethiopia.  Camping by a Rift Valley Lake, when I was a girl, I saw thousands of flamingoes rising into a huge pink cloud in the sky…something that stayed with me until I used it as the core scene for my book, Faraway Home.  Desta, in that story, thinks of the United States as home.  Her father is missing his home in Ethiopia–and now planning to go back to visit his mother.  Can he help her to see what he saw and hear what he heard in beautiful Ethiopia?

Indeed he can.  Walking home barefoot, feeling the warm earth under her feet, she sees (in her mind) a cloud of flamingoes wrinkling the pale cloth of the evening sky. 

Those flamingoes leave her ready to open up a little bit to that faraway home.

I remembered that Ethiopia has such dramatic birds.

So I did pay attention to birds.  I only didn’t tend to pay much attention to American birds because I hadn’t grown up around them and didn’t know enough about them to be fascinated.

I also wrote about a common bird–common as salt–that lives in Ethiopia…and almost every place else that I’ve visited.  In the national aviary, I was bedazzled by a bird whose picture you can see below.  After admiring it for a while–and trying to capture it in a picture–I wandered over to the identification area.  Huh!  It’s actually a kind of pigeon.  I don’t think I get to add these species to my Life List, but take it from me: if you’re in Pittsburgh, go see some birds!

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