David Gibson/Fordham: Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker 2020

Like so many others living under this coronavirus quarantine, walking the dog is a blessed excuse for getting out of the house, at least for a few minutes, for a breath of fresh air and the occasional wary nod of confession to other dog-walkers. “Yes, I know she doesn’t really need to go out, but I do.”

On today’s second (or was it third?) dog walk I looked down and spotted the poor Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker pictured above, in death’s repose. It appears to have slammed into a window, its neck broken, though it was rather far from the nearest house. No cat had mauled it, and it lay there in splendid perfection, like an ornithological pietá, and on Good Friday afternoon.

Yes, I have a soft spot for any and all animals really, but birds were a passion of my youth spent wandering any patch of woods or field I could find in search of creatures feathered or scaled. The sight of this flicker brought me up short because I especially love the deceptively delicate beauty of birds, a beauty that only grows more miraculous on closer inspection — better through field glasses than observation of a dead one, though that didn’t stop John James Audubon, whose watercolors are adored now but were only made possible thanks to the shotgun by which he “collected” his specimens.

The dead flicker also vaulted me back to 1996 and the death of the famed illustrator of birds, Roger Tory Peterson. Peterson was of course a constant companion in my youth, thanks to his field guides, and when he died I was working at the Bergen Record in New Jersey and I asked if I could write a brief obituary.

I didn’t see this as too much of a departure from my religion writing duties (frankly, nothing is too many degrees from religion that you can’t find an excuse to write about it) and no one else was interested so the editors shrugged and said have at it.

A passage from a Peterson biography made writing the tribute an easy one. Peterson was not much for formal religion (sound familiar?). He was raised in western New York State, the son of poor immigrants, and the family’s Lutheran pastor told the nature-loving boy that the love of nature “makes for unbelievers.” (Clergy like that actually make for unbelievers, but that’s another story.)

Peterson’s Swedish-born father died when he was 10, and at 11 a love of birds “took over” his life and never let go. His “road to Damascus” moment was a genuine conversion story, and involves a dead flicker, or so it seemed. Roger was in the woods with friends one April day, much like this Good Friday, I imagine, when he spied a lifeless brown bird on a tree that had fallen across the path. He was fascinated, then surprised:

“I poked it and it burst into color, with the red on the back of its head and the gold on its wing. It was the contrast, you see, between something I thought was dead and something so alive. Like a resurrection. I came to believe birds are the most vivid reflection of life. It made me aware of the world in which we live.”

Peterson’s flicker came back to life. The one I found today will not. But it “made me aware of the world in which we live,” and of the world of vivid memory, and the hope of memories to come.

David Gibson

David Gibson is a journalist, author, filmmaker, and Director of the Center on Religion and Culture.