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  You could have a big dipper   

Birdwatcher by Matthew McGuirk

CW: violence, death

Birdwatching started as one of my lists, but now I have reems of paper, dogeared pages in books and gnawed pencils next to the big picture window in my living room looking over my yard, which is scattered with feeders and other staples related to the lifestyle. I started birding after the Facebook post where Jerry had seen 20 species. I only knew 15 on the list and figured it was probably because I’d never thought too much about birds. I decided to do a quick google search and found there are over 400 species in New Hampshire. There were four others I’d seen but didn’t think of and checked them off on the running list I’d created.

I was still behind Jerry, but not for long. I went down to Home Depot and bought all different types of feeders: tall ones on hooked poles, small ones to hang off my deck on eye hooks, hummingbird ones, ones for seeds, ones to put mealworms in, ones that held fruit for the birds and supplies to build one of my own. I bought bags of seeds and stopped at the grocery store for bread to scatter across the lawn. My old Subaru bounced over the back roads with bags of birding supplies rolling around in the packed trunk.

I was sure Jerry was ready for a competition, so I sent a PDF with birdwatching competition scrolled across the top and plenty of space to specify which he’d seen. I wasn’t going to give him my Wikipedia print out for any help though; he didn’t need any advantages.

I spent late morning putting the feeders out, but soon they were all filled and I waited. It was spring and there were plenty of birds looking for a meal. I broke off small pieces of bread and scattered them across the grass, which was now green patches showing through the brown of the previous season. I pulled one of the chairs from the dining room table and put it next to my picture window. I wasn’t going to risk sitting in something comfortable and falling asleep as a bird came pecking along at a feeder. Before long, I checked off a warbler and a thrush from my list and sent Jerry a comment on his Facebook post, I’m at 21 now!

The hours went by, but I saw an oriole and a chickadee land on the feeders and checking them off made it worth the time. My food plot out back attracted two new species as well.

I knew night was approaching and nocturnal birds would be out looking for food. I made a thermos of instant coffee and pulled a lawn chair out under a big oak that overlooked our barn and the back field now blooming with dandelions. The distinct yellow eyes of an owl cut through that blackness and I took the pencil out of my mouth, flicked on the flashlight and spotlighted the name on my list. Sleep came in spurts before that cool, spring morning was lit by the sun. A bit of frost had even collected on my feet, but shivering through the night was worth the extra check marks on my list and my opportunity to beat Jerry though.

I went inside and warmed up with another cup of coffee. My spot at the picture window called and I checked Facebook for any new notifications. Nothing, but I was sure he was birding like me.

I made a second trip to Home Depot in two days and brought back a black rubber liner for a pond. My morning was spent digging a ditch in the yard, knowing I needed the pond to attract waterfowl. The digging took four hours and the lining and filling took another two with moving rocks from the stonewall to hold the sides down, but it looked perfect. I knew Jerry didn’t have any water and there was no way he would get any of those birds. Soon enough, I had birds dipping their beaks in the pond and dive bombing for bugs. Each little bubble in the pond made me squint and grab at the binoculars hoping for another check.

It wasn’t enough, my list wasn’t extensive or comprehensive and I knew Jerry’s tally would be. Even though he hadn’t written me, I was sure he was working on his list and he’d write back and tell me his number had grown to 50 or 100. I had to think of something he hadn’t, something different. I’d purchased feeders and seeds, dug a pond and scattered bread. I sat in that captain’s chair in my living room petting Bruce, my white Himalayan cat, and thinking about ways I could put myself ahead of Jerry and finish this competition. I stroked Bruce’s long fur and listened to him purr in the spring sun. We watched as a blue jay, already checked off, went to pick up a few crumbs from the lawn. I tossed Bruce off and sprinted out the door to scare the bird away, couldn’t waste the bait on something I’d seen. It took flight and I receded to my spot in front of that picture window. My loyal companion jumped back up on my lap and resumed purring as we watched for a species we hadn’t seen.

Later that day, I threw chunks of stringy meat out across the yard and they fell with red splats against the green grass. I knew I’d have to ward off the couple birds I’d seen that picked at this sort of meal. I also knew I’d keep the rifle ready on my lap and the safety off for a coyote or fox that wanted to try and get my bait. I knew the sacrifice he made for the pleasure of birdwatching, the sacrifice to get me some birds I hadn’t seen and the sacrifice that would help me beat Jerry and I needed to make his contribution count.


Matt McGuirk teaches English and laughs at his own puns by day and scribbles stories at night. He lives with his family in New Hampshire. Stories published or forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys, Friday Nights Forever, Literally Stories, Sleet Magazine, Versification and others. Follow him on Twitter @McguirkMatthew and Instagram @mcguirk_matthew.

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