For the Birds Radio Program: Katie's Birthday

Original Air Date: Dec. 11, 1989

Yesterday Laura’s favorite little girl turned six years old. (4:12)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Cardinal)

According to U.S. census data, there are somewhere around 240 million people living in the United States right now, and of them, at least two million are six-year-old girls. That’s a lot of little girls to choose from, but I have no trouble at all picking out my very favorite, a little girl named Katie, who was really just five years old until yesterday.

Katie is probably the only six-year-old in the country, or maybe even the world, who wants two particular videotapes for Christmas—the My Little Pony full length movie, and High Noon with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. Katie’s unique combination of interests include dinosaurs and unicorns, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Beethoven, and, of course, birds. When I was gone from home for a week this summer teaching an Elderhostel on Burntside Lake, Katie was the one entrusted with the care of my injured nighthawk. Her tiny fingers are exactly the right size for tiny birds to perch on, and so during the two months that we cared for a badly hurt baby Pine Siskin, we kept it in Katie’s room, where she fed it and talked to it and kept it company. After the siskin’s first whole night outdoors, it flew in the door first thing in the morning and darted directly upstairs to Katie’s room. Katie cried when her baby finally migrated with a siskin flock, but while her face was still wet with tears her eyes brightened as she thought of her little friend flying high in the blue sky. Maybe it was on its way to Disney World.

Back when I was a graduate student at Michigan State, the university held an annual farm day, when children could visit the College of Agriculture to pet the animals. At the end of the day each year, literally hundreds of baby chicks and ducks were killed, because the clumsy fingers of so many little children had broken the young birds’ bones or crushed internal organs. The university justified both the petting and the slaughter by saying it was an important educational experience for the children, and they pretty much ignored the protests of faculty and students, but the practice finally ended when small children themselves wrote outraged letters. They were furious that the very animals they had touched had to be killed because no one had taken the time to show them the right way to handle small creatures.

I’ve shown lots of birds to lots of children over the years, but I’ve never had a problem with kids being too rough. The normal impulse of most people is to pet with the index finger alone, but that usually means the animal gets poked rather than petted. So I explain that the best way is to use the first two fingers—that automatically softens the touch for the animal, and allows the child to actually feel the texture of the feathers much better. Children are more sensitive than grown-ups about big things dominating little things, and once they realize that to a small bird even the tiniest kindergartener looks like an enormous giant, they instantly hush their voices and slow their movements.

Anyway, for all the good little children out there who like birds, today I will read my little birthday girl’s favorite poem, about her favorite bird in all the world—Katie the Cardinal.

Katie the Cardinal sat in a tree
And whistled a secret song to me.
She loves the sun and she loves the rain.
She’s scared of the clickety clack of a train.
She eats some seeds and she eats some bugs;
She doesn’t eat spaghetti and she WON’T eat slugs.
In the morning she likes to sing and sing.
After lunch she scratches and preens her wings.
When the sun turns pink she whispers good night,
And tucks her beak until morning light.
Her favorite game is to fly and fly.
That’s what she sang, then she said, “Good-bye!”

(Recording of a Cardinal)

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”