A Golden-crowned Kinglet faces off, “This is my personal style. Wanna make something of it?” Photo by Keith Michael.

By Keith Michael

“I’m smiling.” 

Having half my face covered with a mask, I frequently want to offer assurance about what the rest of my face is saying—like a verbal emoji.

Defiantly maskless beside the couch, Millie is staring at me with wide hopeful corgi eyes, beaming her corgi smile, and sitting tall (as tall as a corgi can sit). I know that if I don’t respond momentarily either with a treat, taking her out for a walk, or both, she also will launch a verbal emoji, “I’m sitting. I’m smiling. DO something!” Wordlessly the request is clear: Give her a treat AND take her out.

We’re welcomed to the street by a cacophony of Blue Jays. It’s a wild fugue of jay jay jay expletives, squeaky door calls, demanding clicks, and miscellaneous whines, not to mention the slalom chase from tree to tree, fire escape to cornice. Generally, I don’t think of birds as having a wide range of facial expressions, but then, I’m thinking as a person. These Jays obviously have a complex language, but what do they see in each others’ faces?

Millie rushes to the curb for the pause that refreshes, and immediately wants to go back inside. Again, her face (and each step pulling toward the door) tells me what to do. Oh dear, as I unlock the street door, I hear the unmistakable beep beep horn of a Red-breasted Nuthatch in a nearby tree. Hold that thought. I’ll be right back.

Dropping Millie off, once again her expression is unmistakable, this time with eyebrows raised, “Where are you going? What about me?”

“Back outside to see the birds—without you!”

Early November is when a host of late migrants are still passing through, and for some, this is already their southern destination until it gets colder. As I hurry west to Hudson River Park, the tsks of a few White-throated Sparrows, our winter visitors, catch my ear. One briefly pops to the top of the wall at Washington and Perry Streets, cocks its head, and flies off. Most birds’ eyes are on the sides of their heads, so their rapid head movements this way and that keep everything in view around them. That tilt of the head, usually looking for something to eat (or on the lookout for something that wants to eat them) can make a bird look inquisitive, fearful, pensive, or demure.

Having crossed West Street, I’m greeted by two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers bulleting by overhead. They seem to spend more time in the air with their wings tucked tightly against their bodies rather than flapping them. I follow them into the blindingly yellow Honey Locust grove on Pier 46. Scanning the bark of the tree for snacks, they seem to have more sign language in their toes climbing up the trunks than mobility in their faces. We don’t notice any movement around birds’ bills, like a smile, or changes around their eyes like a wink or a frown. Maybe between themselves they can discern these subtleties. They live their lives in such speeded up time that we rarely can even see birds blink.

One fascinating structural feature of birds’ eyes is that they have a third translucent eyelid that can blink from the inside to the outside of their eye. Raptors and diving birds use this nictating membrane (the formal name) as safety goggles that protect their eyes from damage. Think what a repertoire of expressions we could milk from this feature—to give someone “the third eyelid” comes to mind!

A bit of brown blows across the promenade with more propulsion than simply a falling leaf. It heads to the base of a tree on the lawn. Ah, a Brown Creeper. I watch it zigzag up the trunk then plummet to the bottom of the next trunk and head up again. These birds are cryptic enough to find as a whole bird much less to discern if one raised an eyebrow as if to tell a joke. I think their cunning camouflage is their joke on us.

A jumble of scribbly squeaks, seet-seet-seet triplets, and random call notes draws me to the Red Maple near the bike path. I can see the sunlit air is speckled with a fall hatchout of no-see-ums that a furtive flock of tiny birds are gorging on. Yellow-rumped Warblers sally out from the upper branches flashing that butter-butt part of their anatomy while a smattering of hyperactive Golden-crowned Kinglets flash the gold of their namesake from the tops of their heads. Playing a maddening game of “catch sight of me if you can” an uncountable number of Ruby-crowned Kinglets are flitting from high to low, to and fro, fro and to. These perky fellows have a feature of expression that surely their buddies can read: they can move their “scalp” so that their ruby crown stands at attention like a Cardinal’s crest, or tuck it in neatly so that it is nearly invisible. I suppose we have a vestigial colloquial expression “it made my hair stand on end” but just think if we could bouffant our hair at will!

Thank you, Millie, this has been an excellent fall afternoon of bird watching. Without you.

I’m smiling.

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