The Bird Word: The Birds of the Walmart Parking Lot

The Beginner’s Mind: Enjoy the Moment and Find New Understanding

The golden-brown eye of the female Brewer’s blackbird scans the Walmart parking lot from high atop a shopping cart stand. The female blackbird carries a rich gray-brown coloring. The male Brewer’s blackbird is easily identifiable by his nodding-head strut, all-black plumage — glossed purple on the head and breast and green on the back, wings and tail — and pale yellow eye. (Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle)

I am not an expert birder. Not by a long shot.
I can still remember the excitement I felt at seeing a particular new and spectacularly plumaged guest at my feeder. He was new to me, anyway, and it wasn’t that long ago.
The beautifully iridescent black feathers glowed purple, green and blue. A bright yellow beak and a snowfall of largish off-white spots was sprinkled over his shoulders and down his chest.
He was big and he was stunning and he was awkward.
He stumbled gracelessly around my platform feeder, mewling like a newborn calf and looking like a lost traveler from places far away and unknown. As I dove for my bird identification book, my hands were shaking from the thrill of new discovery.
Moments later I learned that my visitor was a European starling, wearing his winter jacket.
I laughed out loud at my own foolishness. A common starling.
Honestly, I was hoping for something exciting, a rare sighting. Something with an interesting name — a blue-footed booby, perhaps.
I was embarrassed at my ignorance, though I consoled myself with the idea that I wasn’t in the habit of studying the starlings. They didn’t come to my feeder to eat.
Besides, I told myself, a little ignorance — even of the common things — should be welcomed as an opportunity for learning and another chance to discover a world that (even though it is right there under our very nose and in our own backyard) often goes unexplored and underappreciated.
Saturday afternoon I was reminded of my startling European starling discovery of long ago as I sat in the Walmart parking lot. The sky was a bright blue and the birds — gulls, starlings, red-winged blackbirds and others — were soaring overhead, flying from lighted perch to lighted perch, keeping their eye out for any messy McDonald’s French fry munchers that might emerge from the whoosh of the electronic doors guarding the entrance to bird food heaven.
I looked up from my seat and saw a largish gray-brown bird perched atop a shopping cart stand. My heart skipped a beat when my mind failed to fit a name to the unfamiliar, newfound friend.
I grabbed my camera and rolled down my window to capture the moment. My mind flitted back to the memory of my former embarrassment, but I remained undeterred. This bird was new to me, I decided, and I wasn’t going to allow the joy of the moment or the opportunity for new understanding slip away.
Practitioners of Zen Buddhism call it the “beginner’s mind.”
Having a beginner’s mind means allowing a sense of openness and eagerness to come forward as you make new discoveries or as you learn to apply new meanings to what has become familiar.
We may see the same bird again and again and again, but each time we see it — if we use a beginner’s mind — we learn a little more and we can deepen our appreciation for the bird’s unique beauty and the gift of its presence.
When I arrived home later that afternoon, I determined that the bird I had seen perched above the shopping carts was a female Brewer’s blackbird. Her mate — a stunningly glossy, greenish-black bodied, purple-headed male — had been walking the pavement below her.
I learned that the Brewer’s blackbird usually travels in small flocks of their own kind, but like to team up with larger flocks of starlings, brown-headed cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds to hang out in lowland fields and wetlands throughout the winter.
The Brewer’s blackbird also enjoys the bountiful hunting grounds of Interstate 5. They love to eat vehicle-struck, roadkilled insects.
One bird book identified the Brewer’s blackbird as a bold and cocky bird, the bane of a chicken farmers existence, “they have even been known to settle into a barnyard, intimidate the resident poultry, and fatten up on the furnished grain.”
Sometimes it is a challenge to bring the sublime into the mundane, but it is a worthy challenge.
Try putting on the “beginner’s mind” the next time you spot a common bird outside your window. Seeing the same old bird in new ways breaths fresh life into my nature-loving, wonder-seeking, beginning-birder’s mind. Perhaps it will do the same for you.
What are the unique qualities of this bird’s flight pattern? Does he seem nervous or bold? Is she social or standoffish with the other birds? What seed seems to be her favorite at the feeder?
And please, write and tell me what you see at your feeder. I’d love to hear about your birds.
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Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer who enjoys watching and photographing the wildlife in action in her own backyard in Cinebar. Contact her via e-mail at kz@tds.net.