For the Birds Radio Program: Valentine's Day

Original Air Date: Feb. 14, 1996

Laura Erickson talks about her own special valentine today. (4:08) Date verified.

Audio missing


Most years on Valentine’s Day I talk about something romantic, like nesting owls or bird hearts. This year I’m going to talk about someone dear to my own heart, someone who has walked by my side for 12 ½ years, giving me companionship and protection on birding trips, and asking nothing in return but an occasional Milk Bone Dog Biscuit. I’m talking about my dog, Bunter.

Bunter may not be a bird, but she is a bird dog—a golden retriever—and hundreds of generations of forefathers and foremothers instilled into her bones an urge to carry birds in her mouth. But those same forebears instilled even deeper into her heart and soul a need to please her human. When Bunter was about a year old, she picked up an Evening Grosbeak that had crashed into our window. I’m pretty sure the bird was dead when she found it, but I must have sounded sad when I said, “Bunter, what do you have?” From that day on, she never touched any bird with her mouth, except our Thanksgiving turkey. When a nighthawk walks right past her nose, she sniffs politely, but never touches it. I once tried to train her to find and pick up dead birds on the ground in hopes of doing a study of radio tower kills. When I offered her a dead Chestnut-sided Warbler, she gave me a confused, anxious look, so I opened her mouth and put it in. Her jaw dropped, and she absolutely refused to take it, letting it fall to the ground. She gave me such a baleful look for trying to make her do such a bad thing that I gave up.

One time I accidentally locked Bunter in a room with four baby Blue Jays. When I returned an hour later, two of the babies were sound asleep on the sofa, one was sitting on her back hacking away like a woodpecker, and the other was sitting on the poor dog’s snout, leaning over and probing Bunter’s nostrils with her beak. Bunter looked ashamed and guilty, as if she was the one doing something bad. After that, I was careful to protect her from birds. But Bunter likes being around them, especially around baby jays. Whenever she sees a hungry baby jay begging for food, she runs to me and anxiously tries to lead me to it, like Lassie bringing help to Timmy.

Bunter learned as a puppy that when we go for a walk in the woods, she can run ahead as long as she doesn’t scare any birds away. When I make pishing sounds to attract a bird closer. she sits down and waits patiently. If I go anywhere without her, she seems to think I’m out birding, and lies by the front door, looking sad and waiting patiently for me to come home.

Bunter had a mild stroke two weeks ago. She couldn’t walk at all for two days, but is much improved. During the time she was helpless, she looked utterly ashamed of herself, as if she were being a naughty bother. Suddenly I’m aware that Bunter may not have another Valentine’s Day, and that the best we can hope for is maybe one or two more. The average human lifespan is seven or eight times that of the average dog, so those of us who cannot be without a dog must endure heartache seven or eight times in our lifetimes. My sister won’t have a dog because she still remembers how sad she was when our dog Prince died long ago. To protect herself from pain, she denies herself joy. Bunter’s stroke showed me how sad I’ll be when she no longer greets me at the door or keeps me company on birding walks or helps me take care of little birds. I know how I’ll miss her patient, loving ways. But in the same way that she earnestly burrows her head into the crook of my arm, she’s burrowed those happy days and jolly adventures deep into my heart, where I can retrieve them every Valentine’s Day for the rest of my life.