The backyard bird man

By Duane A. Beyal
WINDOW ROCK, September 27, 2012

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E arly in the morning, doves and sparrows cluster, flutter and flap around a bowl filled with seeds.

The alert, skittish doves – Mourning Doves – are pale gray with a black mark on their necks. The small birds include at least three types but most are the sparrows you see everywhere in our region.

The backyard bird man makes sure he always has a supply of wild bird seed on hand.

"I love my doves," he says, and his remark brings to mind shi'cheii who had a special relationship with animals.

Shi'cheii was a gentle yet powerful person whose friendship with animals was based on mutual respect. Or so it seemed.

Why else did he have faithful animals like Jake the horse and Billy the hound dog? Why else did a prairie dog have an entrance in the floor of his Hogan where it would poke its head out occasionally for a snack?

Why else would our dog Rajah, a German Shepherd who is famous in our family's history, jump out of our pickup truck as we rounded the last hill to visit shi'cheii, running ahead barking joyously and greeting him with effusive tail wagging?

When we buried shi'cheii in 1968 above the valley of his home north of Fort Defiance, Billy went back and forth from the Hogan to the gravesite so often he wore his own trail into the hillside before he left us to rejoin his master.

Likewise, shi'nali's wife had a special tie with her sheep. An old photograph shows her holding a lamb with strong, capable hands and a serene face. She knew all her animals and may have had a name for each.

She did not speak loudly and her peaceful personality seemed to touch the sheep so that they were calm in her presence as if they understood her empathy.

Out on the rolling land of Nageezi or the canyons of Pueblo Pintado and Crownpoint, when an animal wandered away and was lost, the searchers brought her along because of her sharp eyesight.

And her daughter is enshrined in family legend on a tombstone with a carving of a shepherdess and a flock of sheep. We remember her down the canyon alone with the sheep, singing a Navajo song and usually carrying crayons to draw on the rock walls.

Our late mother made sure we always had pets as we grew up, first in Fort Defiance then in Church Rock, N.M. There are so many cats, dogs and horses that became our friends and added to the richness of our youth.

Anyone who owned a cat knows they sometimes bring you a gift. Our silver tabby would bring a bird or mouse and place it before us on the porch. Hunter, our gray and white tomcat, once brought a large green grasshopper and placed it in the crib of my niece's baby girl. I awoke that morning to the sound of her word for Hunter, "Maow." I got up, went down the hall, and Tia was sitting up pointing at Hunter who appeared proud of his gesture.

One day, when I was three years old, we happened to look around the corner of the house and there was Miss Kitty, motionless with one paw raised and her ears laid back.

Two feet away was a coiled rattlesnake, also frozen in its striking posture except for its vibrating rattle.

After several seconds, they'd strike at each other almost too fast to see, then resume their fighting stance.

Dad had thought the rattling sound was from a neighbor's gas tank. Whether our cat was merely confronting an old foe or protecting us, her act gained notoriety for us because my sisters were barely of toddler age.

My personal hero is Rajah. Before we moved to Church Rock, in 1959, he was my companion as I explored Fort Defiance, the neighborhood that is no longer there, the creek, the nearby hill and the plains beyond. My mother said I often wandered off.

She said my uncle was a Navajo Nation policeman and they'd call him when they couldn't find me. He'd go to the top of the hill and look around with binoculars. I was usually found, she said, when they spotted Rajah's tail wagging above the grass and brush.

The bowl of bird seed in the backyard sits on the rail of a porch facing a field of sagebrush. A few cedars dot the hill in the near distance. One morning about 20 doves gathered on the porch and the power line above it. There were too many small birds to count on the ground and in nearby bushes. Even a rabbit scampered in a circle, pausing to nibble on grass.

The bird man also hangs two hummingbird feeders above the porch. Morning glories cling to a wire frame and the plants reach the second floor. Hummingbirds buzz by, hovering by the feeders or the blue and purple flowers.

Whenever one of the other tenants opens a door, the whole flock flies off in one big rush.

But for a short time, the birds and one playful rabbit created an idyllic scene that revived memories of the harmony we enjoyed with our best friends like Rajah.

I hope he and Billy are with shi'cheii, exploring the forest, hills and fields with their tails wagging high.

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