Earthworms’ Castings

With Jean Ponzi

Happy Bird Day

When I turned 60 this summer I got to experience one of my life’s Uplifting Moments.

Missouri Botanical Garden (one of my favorite places on Earth) hosted the party, featuring a stellar show by one of my favorite bands (amazing musicians and my dear friends), the Augusta Bottoms Consort. On that Whitaker Festival concert night (as a bonus for all) the ABC got to wow about 6,000 new fans. And, as I got to quip many times, I did not have to clean the house, cook or cut the grass to have a mighty fine celebration.

My friend Trina Witener brought a surprise. She stealthily worked out details with my husband Dale, and with Garden security. Trina is a phenomenal naturalist and educator on the staff of World Bird Sanctuary, itself an environmental and cultural gem.

She arrived with a juvenile red-shouldered hawk, brought in to World Bird as an orphan and rehabbed and raised there to the point where he was able to live on his own. Trina’s incredible birthday gift was bringing this raptor for me to release.

I had participated in no fewer than three of these wild bird releases, thanks to Trina, including collusion with herself for Dale to release a young screech owl, when ABC played out at World Bird on his 60th. I had started the tradition, in our circle of friends, of singing a blessing to the bird before its moment of flying free. Each of these times was wonderful – and then there was my Bird Day.

Early in the evening, when the concert crowd was still arriving, Trina brought the hawk out of his carrier. She showed me how to hold him in the cast position, bird facing forward, snug to my chest, firmly gripping his (LONG, SHARP) talons in the extra-long, extra-heavy leather gloves we both wore. She reminded me, as I had watched releasing friends do those other times, how to crouch down, count to three and then throw the bird up into the air, to give him the most confident send-off.

Then she passed the hawk to me.

AAAWWWKKK! He glared up at me, jerking and squawking through his (BIG, SHARP) golden beak. I felt his heat, his sturdy weight, clasped under my thundering heart.

My friend Rita, a physical therapist, touched my shoulder and said in my ear, “Relax, Jean” and I realized I was totally hunched up over him. Trina was talking to a gathering crowd, telling our friends and many other folks about this individual bird and about Red-Shouldered Hawks in general. She was calmly answering questions, teaching as she so naturally and eloquently does, and all the while keeping one of her gloved hands near her hawk-and-woman mobile unit.

I walked a long way with that hawk, out of the sheltering Whitaker stage and up, up, up the nearest hill, past big trees and a building and some tall yard-art whirly-gigs to a spot where the bird could take his clearest trajectory. I felt like that magical walk took an hour – and my wild, agitated passenger surely did too.

“This is good,” Trina said, “he’s not gonna want to hang around people.” My dear friend Laura led off this bird’s blessing sing: “Happy Bird Day to Youuuu,” an anthem for us both.

Then it was one-two-THREE! Out of my leather grip he came, flapping a bit for balance, then soaring: up and OVER the trees, around in a huge arc over the Climatron, onward past the heads of us all, off above the neighborhood, and out of sight in the summer sunset. Everybody cheered and I was laughing and crying and hollering too.

Later than night, my friend Robert Bawell sent an email gift, a memento of the instant when a 60-year-old human and a wild young bird took flight – together.

And isn’t it swell that those leather gloves were royal blue, and matched my outfit!

Jean Ponzi hosts radio conversations Mondays, 7-8 pm, on KDHX-FM “Earthworms” and Saturdays, 3-4 pm, on “Growing Green St. Louis” on the Big 550 KTRS.