In April 2021, award-winning author and Orion contributor Jeff VanderMeer shared a personal essay on a formative childhood encounter with a pair of hummingbirds. The essay became one of the year’s most-read online features. Here, VanderMeer shares more about some of his favorite winged friends. All photography below is courtesy of the author.
GIVEN THAT MY LATEST NOVEL is titled Hummingbird Salamander, I must like birds. This becomes perhaps monotonously obvious to anyone who follows my Twitter feed. I’ve even helped ornithologists out by championing the theory that birds can be divided into these basic groups: adorblers, flutterbutts, darkwings, noctuvians, diveflumers, leatherflappers, and the lesser & greater sonickers. I’m not a scientist, but this feels so right.
Let me celebrate five of my favorite birds. Are they common? Yes, but so are we.
1. Turkey Vulture
I’ve always had an appreciation for the role that vultures play in the world and been saddened by the fact that they’re misunderstood and sometimes demonized. On my book tour for Annihilation, I was fortunate enough to meet a turkey vulture in a rehab center and discovered just how sociable and friendly they are—very loving creatures. Ever since I saw a turkey vulture almost hit by a car going after some roadkill, I’ve kept a small shovel in the car trunk, so I can move roadkill off the side of the road and reduce the possibility of vultures and birds of prey being injured.
2. Blue Jay
I know these birds are common, and many folks don’t like their raucousness or aggressive ways, but in our yard in Tallahassee, Florida, they’re the early warning system both for other birds and for me. I can tell now when they’re sounding the alarm about a rat snake or a (rare) cat, an owl or a red-shouldered hawk. I’ve found over time that the blue jays seem to anticipate me coming out to investigate, so our home security system has become mighty.
3. Summer Tanager
I really have come to adore summer tanagers. They sit on the tree outside my office with wasps they’ve caught, blissed out while crunching down on their favorite snack. They’re also partial to some of the suet and fruit I put out. Each one has a distinct personality to go with their distinctive call. More and more come to our yard every year, and I’m absolutely delighted to welcome them.
4. Barred Owl
The goofs of the bird world, these sometimes ungainly birds just crack me up, in part because they have no fear of humans, and no real regard for us either. Once, one perched outside my wife’s office for several hours. At other times their ridiculous calls during mating season are the only welcome sound in the wee hours of the night. Another time our resident barred owl fought a red-shouldered hawk right above the ravine in the back yard. A third encounter epitomized why I love them: the owl, in the late afternoon, seeing a dove atop the bird feeder, decided on a lazy trajectory to try to get an easy meal, on their way to another branch. Of course, the dove escaped; the owl knew this was not its forte.
5. Yellow-Rumped Warbler
Has ever the world created a more plumptuous bird than what I have dubbed the “adorbler?” I think not. These plucky, mischievous, garrulous birds descend upon our little wooded ravine with the swagger of pirates and the fearlessness of those who know that their power lies in their great numbers. Every year, I put out bark butter suet for them and every year dozens and sometimes hundreds flit around the yard exploring, bathing in the bird baths, and, yes, eating me out of house and home. Do I mind, even if the sheer weight of adorblers in the yard sometimes presses down hard on the mind? No, I do not. It is blessing to see so many birds, so healthy, in one place during these uncertain times. Is the adorbler common? Oh, yes, and we should celebrate it for being so.