Water sprayed out of the bird bath like some wild fountain. The source, a gray-brown bird in full bathing ecstasy. Dip, shake, dip, shake, dip, SHAAAAAAAKE. She flew like an overloaded plane to the overhanging, still mostly bare, branches of the sweet gum tree.
I watched her shake and ruffle and preen, several times almost knocking herself right out of the tree. She'd wobble, right herself, and return to her feathers as though nothing had happened. The amazing vigor with which this bird was attacking her toilette grabbed my attention first. Then it was curiosity about who she was.
At first I thought robin. Young female. Mostly gray and brown, but a hint of red at the wings. But the face was wrong. Too pointed. The eyes too small. And the coloring didn't quite work.
Starling? The face was right, but there was no iridescence. A young one perhaps. But the body shape seemed too streamlined to be a juvenile.
Maybe someone from the blackbird family. There are a couple of different cousins who visit from time to time. Except the coloring was too mottled and the eyes were wrong even for a young brewer's or cowbird.
At some point I realized the bird I watched was a fledgling. Its clumsiness was the first clue. Its undistinguished coloring and exaggerated movements provided more evidence. By then I had the binoculars out, so could see its bill closely. I noticed the soft widening at the corners, left over from a mouth that needed to be big enough for a mother bird to insert food.
This was definitely a fledgling - of some sort. I could narrow down the possibilities of her identity: bigger than a sparrow, smaller than a grosbeak. But there was no way, even with a handful of great bird guides, that I would be able to identify her. She was too ordinary looking - her feathers the standard gray-brown drab protection issued to all young birds learning how to be safe in a much larger world than they could have dreamed possible.
And then I realized I was looking at a form of myself. No longer safe in a nest; no longer being fed and defined by the security of an outside source. Taking first tender steps (hops, wing-flaps, baths) into a wide new world. Not quite formed. The final identity still a molt or two away. I'm reminded that it takes my bird guide, Bald Eagle, two years to get its glorious plumage.
After long minutes of intensive fluffing and preening, the bird took off into the sky. The launch was a bit shaky, some of her feathers still stuck out at odd angles, but before long her wings were carrying her strong and sure beyond my sight. A part of my heart followed her, wishing her gently lifting winds on her journey.
photo from Flickr