How to Identify Birds

by Lisa Rashley

“Unfortunately, very few birds actually
look like their pictures in field guides.”

                                    —David Allen Sibley

First, field marks are relative.

How red the cardinals’ breast,
no shade the summer tanager,
black crest and face, darker
than the purple martin, except
the blackbird’s glossy wing.

The color means nothing,
bleeds away into the sky.

So. Plumage, perching habits,
length of tail or wing or bill.
Prairie warbler, blackpoll warbler,
answer the riddle: whose tail
measures longer, tip to body?

Does the answer matter? Either
way both flick the rain away.

Every detail sharp to eye—find ten
differences between these two birds

my book open as I study posture,
and I find only eight. I tip my face
to the sun, feel shadows flit away,

small dreams and sparrows gone.

Lisa Hammond Rashley has published poems in English Journal, Southern Poetry Review, Timber Creek Review, and Coelacanth.  She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of South Carolina Lancaster.  Her chapbook, Moving House, won second place in the Poetry Society of South Carolina’s 2003 Kinloch Rivers Memorial Chapbook Competition.  She lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina, with her husband and two children.