By Bert Gary
Ron Barham called me April 15, 1994, and it had nothing to do with the IRS.
“Hey, Ron. How you doing?”
“I’ve got Painted Buntings in my backyard.”
“Can you keep them there till tomorrow morning?”
“I can try.”
In my old field guide to North American birds, I left a checkmark next to illustrations of male and female Painted Buntings. Next to my checkmark I recorded: 4-16-94, Barham’s on coast.
They were probably tired and hungry from their long flight over the Gulf of Mexico. I arrived to find a small flock of Painted Buntings pecking around Ron’s backyard. This bird, in March and April in the 1990s, was sometimes spotted in coastal Mississippi, but only on its way through during spring migration, if at all. Against all odds, these rare birds, these birds that look as if they were painted by a first grader trying to use all the brightest colors in his Crayola box, just happened to land in the back yard of the biggest birder on the planet, or at least the best birder I knew: Ron Barham.
It’s rather sexist, I suppose, but only the male Painted Bunting is lit up like a Christmas tree. And it’s also only the male that makes a habit of singing dazzling arias from a conspicuous perch. The female is shy and quiet, with a dull olive-green head and back that turns to gold on the chest and yellow on the belly. She blends beautifully with the leaves where she hides in silence.
Just over three weeks ago — we departed June 28 of this year — I accompanied my wife Kathy to a week’s medical continuing education event on Kiawah Island, S.C. My mornings were free while Kathy was in class. Most mornings I sat by the pool and typed. But I signed up for a 2 ½ alf hour birding excursion on July 3 with local naturalist Sarah Latshaw. I discovered that she is an expert in Painted Buntings. I hadn’t seen one of those since 1994 in Ron’s backyard.
Sarah actually catches the birds, bands some of them and puts transmitters on others to track them. She calls Painted Buntings “a neo-tropical migrant.” And she says they’re in trouble. From 1965 to 1995 the population declined an average of 3.5 percent annually; that’s a 70 percent overall decline in only 30 years. Sarah is on the job trying to learn all she can about the bird’s habits and why its population is in continuing steep decline.
She took us to a dock where she knew a flock of Painted Buntings had been. We got out of the truck, and before we could shut the doors she said, “Listen!” We heard it. She said that was the male’s distinctive song. “It’s like R2D2 from Star Wars, isn’t it?” she asked. Actually, it is. We followed the call. Then in full view, in bright sunlight, on a tree limb overhanging a grassy marsh, a male Painted Bunting gave us encore after encore. Sarah put her spotting scope on him and zoomed in as he sang for 10 full minutes. She motioned for me to take a look. I did. “That’s insane!” I recall saying. That garish operatic bird is really beyond description.
Kathy and I returned home to Mississippi on July 6. Sometime that week Kathy said that she’d seen what she thought must be a Goldfinch in the dogwood tree from which our backyard feeders are hung. This surprised me, so I kept an eye out. From the second floor window of my home office, right now, I’m looking at that dogwood tree. Six feeders dangle from its arms like lanterns. The tree dominates my view as it provides shade for the deck below and food for the neighborhood aerialists. That week, as I thought about Kathy’s yellow bird, I was not altogether certain it could have been a Goldfinch. They usually leave our neck of the woods by April.
On July 18, 19 and 20, I saw Kathy’s yellow bird from my upstairs window. The bird sat at the end of the dead limb that reaches straight for me, eye-level when seated at my desktop, only 8 feet from my unblinking eyes. As you may have already guessed, it was a female Painted Bunting. They’re not supposed to be here in the summer. Their population is in rapid decline. The females don’t usually like it out in the open. Why, I asked myself, after seeing Painted Buntings only once in 1994 and on the Carolina coast just two weeks prior, was a shy olive-green and yellow female Painted Bunting posing for me from a conspicuous perch on the end of the limb reaching mere inches from my face? I was in disbelief. Of course I thought of Ron. I’ll call him this week when I get a chance. He won’t believe it.
Sunday night July 20, I drove daughter Anna to Hattiesburg to her mother’s. Vicki told me that Ron Barham had died that afternoon. I drove home in silence.
The next day I spent with my United Methodist minister’s support group. Present were Geoffrey Joyner, Cary Stockett, Sessions Polk and me. We met at Sessions’ place in Clem, just eight miles from my house north of Prentiss. Of course we told “Ron stories” all day. We laughed and cried as we remembered.
Sometime during the day I told the guys about the Painted Buntings in his backyard in 1994, and how I didn’t see another one until this July 3, 2008, just a couple of weeks ago, and how one posed for me the last three days in a row at my house, including the early morning of July 20, the morning of the afternoon that Ron died. What could it mean?
That night I couldn’t sleep. I finally dozed off about 3 a.m. and awoke at 10 on July 22. (Too late to see the female bunting. She only came in the early morning.) I drank a double-strong cup of coffee, unhooked the John Deere key from the kitchen wall,and went out to mow the 3.1 acres surrounding our home. I started under the dogwood tree. My head dodged the birdfeeders hanging from its limbs, and I rode around the corner of the deck to the front of the house. I had to jerk to a stop so as not to hit her. A female Painted Bunting was on the lawn. At the foot of my front steps in plain view she lay lifeless.
I cut the engine and sat there slumped on my bright green and yellow yard machine, its colors mocking hers. The trees were silent except for the songs of the House Finch, the Carolina Wren, and the Northern Cardinal. I got off the tractor. I picked her up and remembered a story Ron had told me about a sick little bird that he had once picked up. It was a Chickadee, I think. Ron said that he held the tiny bird until it breathed its last. It died in Ron’s tender hands, the hands of a big man who cherished little things. How do I know this about Ron? A little bird told me.
Gary is an author and clergy member of the Mississippi Conference. He lives in New Hebron.