I’D NEVER BEEN a serious bird-watcher—until, that is, I spent nine months in a county jail.
County-jail time is, by some accounts, the “hardest time” one can do. There are a variety of reasons for that dubious claim to fame, but high on my list is prisoners’ lack of access to nature. The building in which I was incarcerated included a recreation yard made of concrete and brick, with a fence-hatched view of only the sky. The cells did not have fully transparent windows; instead they offered six-inch-by-three-foot slices of views of the outdoors. Yet the sight of birds through those narrow slits bolstered my flagging belief in the beauty of the world.
Over the long, dismal months, I was drawn to the window, initially in search of sun and any sign of life, or to hide unexpected tears from a stranger sharing my cell. But as spring approached, the razor-wire fence and surrounding grass began to be populated by birds, which I observed for extended periods. I found myself increasingly energized by my sightings. Perched on a metal stool and peering through the window slits, I took in details I’d never noticed before. Despite years of seeing robins each spring, for example, I didn’t know that their beaks were yellow.
My father assisted in my effort to learn the markings and behaviors of bird species by sending me a novice bird guide. Book in hand (without binoculars, of course), I passed days looking out the window, willing birds to come and visit me. Ruby-red house finches were regular spots of brilliant color in an otherwise gray and gloomy world; their spirited playfulness had me imagining their conversations and laughing out loud. Goldfinches and red-winged blackbirds decorated the razor wire, while kingbirds and mockingbirds required quick study if I wanted to observe them alight, preen, and flit off. House sparrows and chipping sparrows commiserated inside the brick courtyard, capturing moths that mistakenly believed they had found a safe haven. A red-tailed hawk soared above the fray, glinting sun from its tail, a visual reminder of freedom.
Once, a killdeer family joined the tableau. I remember the three fledglings racing along the fence edge as their parents watched—I was so delighted by the sight that I shouted for the women in neighboring cells to look out their windows, breaking my customary silence.