Books

What Birds Taught Me About Marriage

'Birding taught me how to stay in love, an exercise at which I had desperately needed coaching.'

photo of book cover and author

The following is excerpted from the memoir Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, published this September by Douglas & McIntyre, in which Julia Zarankin finds meaning in midlife through birds. Recently divorced and auditioning hobbies during a stressful career transition, she stumbled onto birdwatching. What Zarankin never could have predicted was that she would become one of them. Not only would she come to identify proudly as a birder, but birding would ultimately lead her to find love, uncover a new language and lay down her roots.


The second time I got married, there was no cake. I couldn’t face a repeat of my first wedding, when my father tripped on his way to the front door and let out a faint squeal as my three-tiered marzipan-covered lemon wedding cake, in slow motion, escaped his grip, slid off its platform and plummeted, left side first, into the grass. When I opened the door, my father’s guilty eyes peered at me from behind the lopsided cake, whose side had now acquired a permanent dusting of twigs.

Instead of interpreting the mangled wedding cake as a questionable omen, I had read it as a sign of exquisite luck. This was exactly the anti-wedding I’d been hoping for. A black dress, no formal invitations, a ceremony at city hall on St. Patrick’s Day—a date I chose only because it fit with my graduate school vacation calendar—and a party at my parents’ house the next day. And now, a toppled wedding cake cemented our union, which so obviously defied convention.

I married my first husband when I was under the spell of graduate school, as everybody I knew had paired off and I assumed that nuptials secured a sure path to bona fide adulthood. A visiting French graduate student in philosophy, he astounded me with his encyclopedic knowledge and his passion for comparative mythology. We fell in love with our respective bookshelves and envisioned a future of merged multilingual libraries. Smugly, I mocked my friends and thought our love was stronger, more authentic, more lasting than theirs. In the end, I married a person of my own creation.

There was nothing original about our breakup. It included all the hallmarks of a disintegrating marriage—deceit, betrayal, frustrated expectations. Until the final moments of crumbling, we hadn’t even really argued. As things collapsed definitively, I remembered the cake.

The second time around, there would be no three-tiered cake. I didn’t want to provide us with an easy omen, with a sure sign in retrospect. We married on Leon’s lunch break, since he worked two blocks from city hall, and a third of our fifteen-person wedding party came uninvited. I barely knew the five officemates sitting in the second row, who needed proof that this forty-six-year-old poster child for eternal bachelorhood was indeed getting married. If I were to break up with Leon, I thought to myself at our wedding, I wouldn’t be able to trace it back to this simple, impersonal twenty-minute ceremony; we would be worthy of a more complicated narrative. In my repertory of modes of leaving, I had already mastered the surreptitious departure, the protracted disintegration, the explosive combustion, the electric jolt of mutual horror, the non-negotiable betrayal, the irredeemable disenchantment and, perhaps worst of all, the transformation of love into pity. Our breakup, if it were to happen, would have to follow an altogether different trajectory, I decided.

But I worried. I worried that we weren’t compatible enough (he didn’t like classical music as much as I’d hoped), I worried that we wouldn’t survive the three-year mark (not one of my previous relationships had made it past three years), I worried that we’d run out of things to say to one another and that our aesthetic tastes would turn out to be irreconcilable. Most of all, I worried that someone who had gotten divorced barely three years after her father dropped her wedding cake on the ground might have been, somewhere deep down, cursed by the evil eye.

Five months into our marriage, I discovered birds. Two years into our marriage, I became the proud owner of a sewage lagoon permit, which enabled me to enter the Brighton sewage treatment plant at my own risk, with pants tucked into socks, and marvel at shorebirds and other assorted waterfowl. Ten years into our marriage, I haven’t yet acquired a multipocketed vest, but watching fellow birders parade theirs with pride, I know it’s only a matter of time before I start researching brands myself.

“You weren’t like this when I married you” is a refrain my husband likes to utter, jokingly. Or maybe not so jokingly. But it’s true. I wasn’t like this when I married him. And neither was he.

Love, as we know it, rarely figures into the avian equation. Polygamy and polyandry prevail in their world, usually in the service of Darwinian survival. Monogamous birds are few and far between—puffins are a famed example—but most birds are biologically wired to allow for multiple partners: DNA analysis of eggs has revealed that there can be numerous fathers within a single clutch, which means that the female’s body is created to allow for the storage of sperm from different partners to fertilize the eggs.

Bird sex is lightning quick, with the very rare exception, and theirs cannot be judged by human standards of pleasure and fidelity, comfort and security. I once came upon two peregrine falcons flirting in mid-air above a quarry just north of Hamilton. I quickly raised my binoculars and watched them engage in a rapturous amorous chase and quickly copulate on a utility pole, all of which lasted no longer than twenty seconds. Afterwards, the diminutive male flew off, looking self-satisfied, and the more robust female rustled her feathers, looked around ravenously and went about her business.

Birding didn’t teach me how to fall in love. Besides, I was already an expert in that, especially falling in love with the variety of human who was wrong for me in every way; my roster of failed relationships held specimens of whom I was ashamed, whom I wished I could press the fast- forward button on, and also fellows who might have been right for me had I met them at a different stage of life—but birding taught me how to stay in love, an exercise at which I had desperately needed coaching. My husband and I met the old-fashioned way, introduced by my then-eighty-nine-year-old grandmother. Her neighbour had a good friend who had a son who was single; my grandmother was dissatisfied with every guy I picked out for myself. After a brief discussion and a quick photo exchange, the two of them decided that this was worth a shot. “He goes to the film festival regularly,” my grandmother told me. His greatest selling point, once she remembered I loved movies. “And the ballet.” What she didn’t tell me was that he had season tickets to the National Ballet of Canada and attended performances with his mother.

I went on the date partly out of desperation and in no small part out of curiosity. Who was this Russian-Jewish computer programmer who also liked movies and ballet? It turned out he was also an amateur powerlifter who could easily deadlift the weight of my entire nuclear family. I stared at his bulky chest and arms, entirely unable to imagine how we could negotiate any kind of intimate scenario. Would he crush me? (The answer turned out to be no.)

I unexpectedly fell in love with Leon, largely because he was nothing like me. I had usually chosen partners based on shared interests or similarities. I needed to be able to see myself in the person, to recognize quirks and insecurities in order to feel a certain comfort. Here, the shared interests were minimal, though we both liked going for walks and finding good coffee shops and wandering aimlessly, and what appealed to me was in fact that he was nothing like me, that I couldn’t recognize myself in any part of him. Here was a man who didn’t have anxiety about finding the right word, the right sentence to describe a thought, who never worried about the rhythm of a phrase—although I later learned that he worried every bit as much about the elegance of his lines of code, and that he too embarked on a form of writing every time he was faced with a work problem. We read different books entirely—his were sci-fi and fantasy, all the same size, all perfectly ordered, whereas I was a child of realist novels, completely uninterested in other worlds. Unexpectedly, he made me laugh, didn’t find faults in my physical appearance, didn’t judge me, and just let me be.

The first fifty times I saw a white-breasted nuthatch, I confused it with a black-capped chickadee. Both had black heads and similarly sized grey backs, and both hung out in the same trees. It wasn’t until later that I learned that their behaviour differs completely—the nuthatch creeps down a tree headfirst, its bill longer and pointier, its eye- stripe prominent. I didn’t see these details immediately—it took months for them to imprint on my mind, but once I learned to recognize them, the two birds seemed forever different to me.

Birding is about discerning differences, sometimes minute—a blackpoll and a bay-breasted warbler are indistinguishable in fall plumage, except for the colour of their feet. (The blackpoll’s are yellowish.) Even though I rarely manage to distinguish them in the field, I now know that if only they’d stay still for long enough, which warblers so rarely do, I could.

By the time Leon and I had our first serious argument, I had already spent time in the field with a scope, puzzling through the differences between a greater and lesser scaup, though it would take years to learn that the lesser was the one with the slightly elongated head and the greenish or purplish iridescence, which is only visible in perfect sunlight. The differences between species were subtle, but unmistakable once one grasped the details of their morphology. Maybe that was just it: we didn’t both have to be a greater scaup.

The more I watched birds, the more I learned to appreciate the inter-species differences between my husband and me. We were clearly part of the same genus but belonged to different species. So what if Leon refused to see Tosca with me? So what if the symphony left him cold? I stopped trying to convert him to my interests. I began to think about our differences in perspective, like the varied bird species that I was learning to discern. They all coexist and their beauty, to me, lies precisely in their distinct characteristics.

There’s a spontaneity that comes with birding. The bird you’re looking for often isn’t the one that appears, no matter how well you plan for it and how many listservs you dutifully consult. And the one that appears is often more surprising and just as great as, if not better than, the one you’re looking for. In my quest to find my first red-headed woodpecker, we came across a merlin sitting on a branch directly across the street from us, giving us perfect looks, posing for the camera, more still than I’d ever seen one perch. I was so focused on seeing my woodpecker that I didn’t pay enough attention to the merlin and didn’t realize how rare his posture was, didn’t realize that I might never see a merlin this close up again.

If I could have that day back, I would correct my disinterest in the merlin. I was so obsessed with my woodpecker that I ignored the merlin because I hadn’t planned for it. It wasn’t my target bird and I couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm. It’s been four years since that day, and I’m still trying to get that good a look at a merlin. I’ve seen many red-headed woodpeckers since then, but never another merlin that close, that co-operative, that picture-perfect.

I didn’t learn the lesson that day, because I was so focused on my reward—finally seeing a red-headed woodpecker—but I learned it a while later: focus on what’s in front of you, on what you’re looking at rather than what you want to see. I try to apply that to my marriage. Focus on what’s there right now.

It turned out that when I didn’t look into the future, when I stopped practising the art of augury, when I didn’t try to obsessively plan out our life, the present was actually exactly as I wanted.