Learning from a Bird: 'The Big Sit'

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Every year around this time in October, commentator Julie Zickefoose and her husband host friends and family for an annual birdwatching event called "The Big Sit." One year, while preparing food for the event, Julie couldn't locate one of the ingredients for her stew. This is the story of how the vultures knew what Zickefoose did not.


This is the time of year when commentator Julie Zickefoose and her husband host friends and family for an annual bird watching event called the Big Sit. As the name implies, there is lots of sitting around naming the birds that come by, and of course there's the food. One year a signature dish almost didn't make it. Here's the story.

JULIE ZICKEFOOSE: Ever notice how you don't see many vultures on cloudy days? They like a good sunny day and some thermals to lift them high above the hills. So it was with interest that I watched eight vultures circling, swooping, beating their great sable wings low over my yard for three rainy days running, defying the low ceiling and soggy skies. There must be something good rotting down in the woods, I thought, or they wouldn't bother getting off their roust in this drizzle.

Even though the weather is usually iffy in mid-October, the Big Sit is probably our favorite organized bird watching event. In a Big Sit we don't chase birds, we let them come to us. We invite friends to our home to sit for all or part of a 12 hour shift in a 17 foot diameter circle, simply identifying every bird that flies by. We talk and laugh and act silly and eat all day long. It's perfectly tailored to our slothful approach both to birding and entertaining.

My husband Bill takes the Big Sit seriously. Enough so that he drove straight to New York City the night before one big sit in order to be at his station at the crack of dawn. Since he was on the road, it was up to me to assemble the snacks. I will confess, I neglected to buy the caffeinated cola, nacho flavored chips and flame orange cheese puffs that he'd scribbled on the shopping list and which he considers part of the essential Big Sit diet.

It was up to me this time. I would make healthy food for our guests. I make a chicken stew with carrots, white kidney beans, kale from the garden and top it with fresh parmesan. Who could pine for cheese puffs? I went down to the basement refrigerator to collect me stewing chicken, bought and stored four days earlier, and it was not there. I know I bought a chicken. I'll check upstairs again.

And I went off to other tasks meaning to look for it later. A pile of mail by the door beckoned. I'd drive it out to the box quickly before the mailman came. I opened the garage door and noticed a fowl odor. I opened the door of my Explorer and reeled backward. Something died in here.

Gingerly I lifted the back hatch and saw the small white grocery bag forgotten in the near corner. My chicken, its thick plastic wrapping swollen to near bursting had been stewing in the warm garage for the past week. Chickens almost always leak. Thank goodness the poly wrapping held this time. The damage was purely olfactory.

I eased the bag out by its handles as one might lift a live grenade. I backed out of the garage holding the (unintelligible) bolus at arms length. Eight vultures trained knowing eyes on me as I carried it ceremoniously out to the middle of our meadow, where I leave freezer burned treasures and the occasional road kill for their enjoyment.

I retreated to the house to wash up and laugh. I dug some chicken legs out of the freezer and started them stewing for the soup. The vultures circled and tilted low over the Explorer, which was airing out, its doors and windows ajar in the driveway. Eight of them, the same pack that had been trying all week to tell me where that chicken was.

BLOCK: Commentator Julie Zicklefoose keeps her eye on the sky in Whipple, Ohio. She'll be counting birds and serving up stew to bird watchers this coming Sunday, October 8. Her new book, Letters from Eden, has just been published.

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