“hope is the thing with feathers”

I am sure you’re familiar with Emily Dickinson’s beautiful extended metaphor and I hope you’ll be forgiving as I personalize it in the most literal sense. I’m writing about a bird.

But this isn’t an ordinary bird, in my estimation, and come to find out he has quite a history.

But first…

I’ve been absent my blogging rituals of late. I’ll start with the fact that all is well. All is very well, to be more accurate. But starting sometime in December both Jay and I had health-related issues that needed attention, and for a couple of months we simply had to “go with the flow.” I don’t do that very well when I’m stressed.

I shut down as a form of conservation. All of my energy goes into self-protection, and by that, I typically find as much quiet space as possible. In our mild winter climate I was able to spend a good portion of most days outdoors. My garden space is peaceful, and that’s welcoming.

Most mornings I sit with my cup of tea and have my prayer and meditation time for as long as I need, and over a few stressful months these times were important to me in keeping me centered. 

And then one day in early March I heard the familiar song.

This seasonal visitor is the male of a pair of Red-Whiskered bulbuls who yearly visit the pineapple guava bush, now tree, next door. On occasion we are visited by more than the pair, but so far this year I’ve only seen mama and papa as they investigate the nest, still there, they used last year to raise two little chicks.

Hearing the song and then watching their activity brought me joy!

But I mentioned they have a history.

In trying to find out more about these beautiful birds I discovered a Los Angeles Times article published in 1985, referencing that the Bulbul had first been sighted at the Huntington Library’s Botanical Garden in 1968, and that it hadn’t ventured far from that habitat.

Eating from the pineapple guava bush

Indigenous to China and Southeast Asia, the theory was these birds were likely shipped or carried from other countries and escaped private aviaries. But they eat fruit and berries and are considered an invasive species, with the agriculture department declaring them a pest, and in the late 1960’s state and county officials were using pellet guns to kill the birds “on orders from the state Department of Food and Agriculture and the Los Angeles County agricultural commission.”


On the “Wanted” list

“In 1968 five bulbuls were sighted in the Huntington Gardens, five were shot, and we thought the problem was over. We’ve been working on this pretty consistently for the better part of 20 years.” In that period of time 168 bulbuls were exterminated, according to Richard Wrightman, supervising agricultural inspector for the county, heading up the bulbul eradication effort.

All of this madness and mayhem taking place only about two miles from my home. I’m glad to know some escaped to go on, reproduce, and live to eat my guavas.

Eventually the eradication program was forfeited, although the article did say some ornithologists were in agreement with the decision to eliminate them. I don’t have enough knowledge to determine whether or not some 50 years later there would be a different perspective, but because I love this little bird I’m just glad to know there were some escapees.

So maybe you can understand why dear Emily’s words came to my mind the day the bulbuls showed up mid-March. They really did bring me joy, which carried forward into hope that our temporary gloom would pass. And it did.

Bulbuls are dependent upon exotic fruit, which is why the our neighbor’s guava bush is integral. Our neighbors are kind people, but their gardening habits at best might be filed under “mercurial.” One day we heard the chain saw and I think Jay and I frightened the gentleman as he was about to attack the guava bush. It’s the size of a tree at this point. But we pleaded with him to “spare that tree!”

In advance of a potential disaster, this year we planted two new guava bushes, a fraction of the size we would expect to attract the birds, but we’ll do what we can.

Article reference:

Los Angeles Times December 29, 1985, Mary Barber, “Bird Wins Reprieve in Battle of the Bulbul.”

48 thoughts on ““hope is the thing with feathers”

  1. One can scarcely credit that human beings are so precious about their own fruit that they would badger the Ag Dept to *exterminate* such beautiful llittle creatures. I am stunned by what was done; and can only agree with you, beautiful Debra, in being vastly relieved that some sense eventually crept into the Dept’s machinations. When I come across stories like this, I cease wondering about what we’ve done and are still doing (Oz being VERY culpable !) to our wonderful planet ..

    • If I thought I could find the answer without too much digging I’d really like to know what the response to this beautiful bird would be today. Like you, M-R, I am almost always bewildered at the priorities placed on protecting commercial commodities rather than prioritizing living species, but I also don’t know the overall “downstream” effect of whether or not maybe even other species were in danger because of the invasive nature of this bird. I do know it’s complicated, but I am always about protecting the natural world and I am very crabby with people who don’t share my perspective. I’m not always fun at dinner parties. πŸ™‚

  2. The most dangerous beasts on this planet are human beings. How we mistreat flora and fauna and not learn from past mistakes puzzles me every since I am a little girl. Your story about the harmless bird is just sad and I am very happy to know some escaped and can be still be seen.

    When will we ever learn?

    • I don’t know if we will ever learn, Bridget, and that’s a frightening thing. I don’t know more about what dreadful harm was expected from the bulbul, but they are so beautiful and in this case, as many as were killed, many apparently escaped. You know we have a Grizzly Bear on our flag of California, and there isn’t one Grizzly Bear left in the state. Sadly, we aren’t very smart people. We just think we are!

  3. Good to hear you are back to health and enjoying your garden Debra. The birds, or indeed any sign of nature, can have the power to work wonders, especially for the soul and spirit. How lucky you are to have this rarity visit you! I am tentatively waiting to see if I will hear the call of a hoopoe bird this summer. I heard it two years ago, but could not believe it was a hoopoe as they are so rare in these parts. But I have since read that they may be in our area and have been voted bird of the year 2022! πŸ˜ƒ In the meantime I am looking forward to hearing the first cuckoo in late April…. πŸ˜ƒ

    • It delights me to hear that you are also anticipating the sound of a special bird or two, Cathy. I sometimes spend half a day looking for a bird I might hear, but not yet see. I get so curious! I have never heard of a hoopoe, and have never see an cuckoo…our regions are so far apart, but knowing that all these beautiful species share the planet with us and rely on us to continue to provide habitat is one of the reasons my garden is special to me, too. You’ll have to share if the hoopoe appears. Bird of the year 2022! That’s very special. πŸ™‚

  4. May both you, dear Debra, as well as Jay, enjoy now further very
    good health! πŸ™‚
    I had a very severe EDAMA outbreak, starting in mid-December!
    In 6 months I am going to be 88! πŸ™‚
    Since I feel already quite a bit better now, maybe I have a chance to
    be granted some more bonus time! πŸ™‚

    • Thank you for the well wishes, Uta. And I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve had your own medical emergency, but I do hope you’re improving. Your 88th birthday is something to really anticipate and must bring your family much joy. You continue to remain so vitally interested in the world’s affairs and you nurture your curiosity and intellect and that is also keeping you young. I think you’re definitely in line for some very good bonus time! What a nice way to think about an upcoming birthday. πŸ™‚

    • Thank you, Wanda. I’m all about doing my part. LOL! It may not be able to save a species, but I can take care of the two in my own garden. πŸ™‚

  5. First, glad to hear you and Jay are both doing better. I took comfort in your words about prayer and peace. And I took even more comfort in your kindness in providing for creatures (it’s not their fault they’re here!). You are a kind, kind soul Debra.

    • Thank you, Colleen. Yes, we’re doing well now. One of the better aspects of being retirement age is having time to nurture my spiritual practices without quite as many demands on my time as would have been true when working. And spending time just watching the birds is a form of therapy. I always enjoy hearing from you, my friend. Thank you.

    • They really are a sweet little bird. Once I heard the bulbul’s “back story” I became a champion. They are true survivors, in our area anyway, Jim. πŸ™‚

  6. Humans are far more destructive than any bird! Nature has it’s way of stabilizing populations (wars for humans). As a victim of some groundhog invasions taking my best veggies in a very small garden, I get the disappointment but we all just want to live.

    • It’s true, Kate. I’ve had my own “infestations” from time to time and they aren’t fun. I also struggle a little when the herons come and eat our fish. But somehow in all of this I think we need to stand back and give them all a chance. I wouldn’t be someone the Agricultural or Fish and Game Department would like to hire. I make all of my determinations on the basis of emotion when it comes to animals. I don’t think that’s going to change. πŸ™‚

      • I applaud that. So do I. Heron visits were relatively rare (although there is a nest a few miles from me) and I’m always awed by the beauty of the bird. However, I’ll admire but if it starts to focus on the water, I’ll be out there chasing it.

  7. Extermination of ‘invasive species’ is sometimes a necessary evil if there is a threat to another species as a result of the newcomers presence. This can be due increased competition for a type of food that an endangered local species relies upon. Another example is where an endangered resident species is placed under threat because the invasive species mates with it causing hybridisation – an example of this is the Ruddy Duck (a North American import) which is on the extermination list in the UK and much of Europe because it mates with the White-headed Duck. Not all incoming species get placed on the extermination list though – escaped Parakeets have caused a lot of debate in the UK. One type, the Monk Parakeet, is being removed by a mixture of egg control and capture of adult birds – the reason is that they are an agricultural pest in their natural range and that they live in large communal nests which damage buildings and cause a significant hazard in the form of droppings below. The Ring-necked Parakeet, on the other hand, has so far escaped an extermination order with the RSPB suggesting that it is let be for the time being as it does not seem to be affecting indigenous species. However, there may come a time when action is also required against these too – there are significant flocks across south-east England and they have been seen as far north as Aberdeen! It would be interesting to find out why this route was chosen for your Red-Whiskered bulbuls?
    Anyway, I hope that you and Jay are well and are able to get back to a more ‘normal’ flow. Best wishes to you bothπŸ‘

    • Martin, I should have guessed you’d have such interesting information and thank you for contributing to the story, simply by way of suggestion that there can be reasons when an eradication effort is in the best interest of other living things! I would like to know a little more about this story, and maybe I can dig a bit more. I’m a member of the Pasadena Audubon Society and they were referenced in the article as having been divided on the subject back in the 60’s. It sounds like you’re saying the Monk Parakeet situation is not being handled by as much brutality as shooting the birds. Maybe that’s my main objection. That our little guys are doing well means all was not lost, so for now I consider that a victory for the bulbul.

      And thank you for the kind words regarding our health. We are doing well.

  8. When we find peace within, we find peace without ~ glad you have a garden available to lift your spirits while drinking your morning tea and getting centered!

    We have a visiting bird who has been singing the most delightful songs just outside our villa. When I hear the song, I listen and smile. Grounded. Centered. At peace.

    • I have the same response to birdsong, Nancy. Each bird is distinct in their sounds and habits and I find watching and listening to be very therapeutic. Yes, my garden is truly my sanctuary, and although it’s getting more and more challenging to keep up with all of it, I’m not ready to let it go yet, either. πŸ™‚

  9. I’m happy to know that you are doing well and back to blogging!

    We are just down the freeway from you (and have pineapple guava bushes) but I’ve never seen that bird. The attempted eradication was certainly bad, but to bring a non-native species to the area and let them escape was the first human error. When we mess with nature’s plan, it usually doesn’t end well.

    • I think you probably have other birds relying on your guavas, though, Janis. They are a treat for migrating birds, from what I’m learning. The bulbul is really probably only in our area. We live very close to the Huntington Botanical gardens where they seem to have resided because the gardens had so many exotic fruit trees and bushes. Although as habitats change, you wonder if we will even be able to keep them happy! I’m trying. πŸ™‚

    • I would like to see the transcript of the meeting when the agricultural “big whigs” all got together and someone said, “I think we need to shoot them. Let’s vote. How many ayes?” I hope that in today’s thinking we might have a more humane way of redirecting bird traffic? I’m not altogether convinced, however.

  10. This post made me smile because (for me) this post is so you – the intertwining of your love for nature and local history with a personal touch. My initial thoughts about this bird species were more along the lines of Martin. Glad you are feeling better.

    • Ha! I know I’m not seeing the situation practically, Frank, but I think I mostly objected to the idea that they shot the birds! I’m not sure what I expect, but something less violent, maybe? My little birds are nesting, and I’m still delighted some escaped. πŸ™‚

  11. Spring holds a different meaning to different people, maybe even different depending on the year! This is yours, and I’m glad things are looking up. I can relate, because at 65 I always felt young and healthy, and then boom – I have A-Fib. Certainly surprising. I felt sorry for myself for a while, and I think now spring is making me feel better!

    • Thank you, Mimi, and we are feeling better. As I was going through some diagnostics I asked questions of my physicians and it became almost a joke to me how often the answer to my question was, “well, in older people…” LOL! I guess I hadn’t really given that a lot of thought. My husband has A-fib and I know what that means initially when confronted with blood thinners and meds, but I’m very glad you’re adjusting. And I think feeling sorry for yourself is appropriate at first, then, of course it doesn’t help. I felt like having a pity party myself for awhile, but realized with a pandemic and so many people being really ill (or dying!) I couldn’t even enjoy my own party without feeling guilty! Happy Spring, Mimi. And just continue to take care of yourself!

  12. Debra, it’s always nice to find a post from you. I’m glad you are doing better and found your way back to blogging. You put into words something I’ve been feeling: a withdrawal from things to conserve energy. I’m so glad you shared. I’m saddened to hear that the birds were largely eradicated. I heard a similar story this week on NPR regarding wolves. It’s hard to listen to these stories when you love all animals, eh? I hope you’ll be blogging more often. I enjoy your perspectives on this troubled world. Alys

    • Thank you so much, Alys. You are very kind. Even when we do our best to conserve our efforts it’s often almost impossible to really shut out the noise and chaos for very long, so I have been trying to take as much of my morning as I can afford to enjoy my garden, the birds and quiet before jumping into the day. It does help conserve my energy for the things I most want to do! πŸ™‚ I hope to blog more frequently, and I’m grateful for your interest.

  13. This was a lovely multifaceted post so thank you Debra. I am glad to hear you are both well and I enjoyed hearing about your efforts to support these birds. I immediately thought about the green parakeets in the UK and Martin has already told their story in comments above.

  14. Dear Debra, thank you for sharing this update on your health and your spirits. Nature truly is mysterious and marvelous. Sitting quietly and letting its energy and force and life unfold before us really does–at least for me and for you, too–lessen anxiety and help us know that indeed, all shall be well. Peace.

    • I love the way you put it, Dee, letting nature’s “energy and force and life unfold before us…” Yes! That’s it! The more I immerse myself in the natural world the more anxiety and fear drop! Thank you!

  15. I’m glad that you were able to convince you neighbor to not cut down the tree for your lovely visitors. It sounds like all is well with both the two of you and your feathered friends.

  16. Hi Debra, Thank you for sharing your studies and finding. Enjoyed reading it. What a beautiful birds, and I love these images. I can only imagine your lovely garden.

  17. Hello Debra… First off, I’m glad things have calmed for you. Second, I would encourage anyone who reads this post to first click on the video link and to use the birdsong as background music as you continue reading. I think it puts everything into a kind of perspective. All that being said, I live in South Florida, where invasive species run amok. From pythons to iguanas to even plants, they have a tendency to multiply from an acceptable nuisance to a destroyer of the native habitat. Personally, my battle is with iguanas — which are really like reptilian deer or rabbits. They eat everything — except, so far, my native plants. When it comes to invasive, I think it has to be determined if the invasive one, a bird in this case, is causing irreparable harm to the native flora and fauna. As I was reading your post, though, I was charmed by your fine-feathered friend. So — if there’s no destruction of the native environment, then it should be live and let live, whistle and let whistle.

    • Live and let whistle! That’s right, Kevin. Thank you for that. πŸ™‚ Pythons? Whoa! I guess they come from private home “collections?” That would take some getting used to. LOL! I do recall posts where you’ve shared about the iguanas and the damage they do. One thing that makes gardening so delightful is the challenge of problem solving, maintenance and sometimes a bit of grief, but balanced by recognizing that with all the hard work we have also created an inviting environment not just for ourselves, but also for visiting species. And in it all, we do our best! Thanks for stopping by Kevin. You know I always enjoy hearing from. you. πŸ™‚

  18. Hi Debra, I revisit these beautiful birds again. Enjoyed reading the story the second time. Thank you for taking time to do the research and sharing with us. Beautifully written.

  19. Debbie, I don’t know how I missed this, other than that I was briefly in the UK visiting my son. I do normally check in with my favourites, so I hope you’ll forgive me. The best news, of course, is that all is well with you following the period of poor health. The rest is hard to understand. Declaring war on these little creatures? Grow, guava tree! Grow!

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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