Even if you're an avian enthusiast, 3 birds in 22 lines is a lot of feathers for a relatively short poem. Roethke was certainly a nature lover, but this seems a little over the top. It's also worth noting that Roethke doesn't just give us generic birds; he gets specific (wren, sparrow, pigeon, Big Bird—just checking to see if you're still awake). He chose specific birds to use metaphorically to help us understand Jane and his relationship to her. Let's take a closer look and see what all the flapping is about:
Lines 4-5: Wrens are small, mostly brown birds that you probably wouldn't look at twice—not the kind of bird you'd expect the poet to compare the subject of an elegy to. What is Roethke trying to say here with this metaphor? Is he telling us that Jane was plain looking (literally a plain Jane)? Well, that could be part of it, but there are some other wren-y aspects to consider as well. Wrens are tiny, but their song is especially complex and energetic. Also, wrens are not born with the ability to sing their complex songs like some birds are, wrens have to learn their songs by listening to adult birds sing. Sound familiar? Kind of like a poetry student learning to "sing" from her teacher?
Line 14: Sparrows are also small, common birds, but they have more literary history tucked under their little wings. Roethke's metaphorical use of the sparrow echoes the Roman poet Cattullus's (ca. 84 BC—ca. 54 BC) "Poem 3," in which he laments a pet sparrow taken by Orcus, a god of the underworld: "My pretty sparrow, you have taken him away…Ah, poor little bird!" Okay, the sparrow's gender is different, but the poem is, in a sense, an elegy for the sparrow. Coincidence? Shmoop thinks not.
Line 19: Pigeons are about as common as it gets in the bird world. The color most people associate with pigeons is grey. They are, in nearly every aspect, unspectacular. Despite the underwhelming nature of this bird, Roethke likely chose the pigeon, his final bird metaphor, for a good reason. Consider this: while you might not be familiar with a wren's song, or Cattullus's sparrow, chances are, you can easily picture a pigeon. You can picture the shape and movement of the bird—kind of awkward on the ground but rather sleek and purposeful in flight. Indifferent and then "skittery" when you get just one step too close. Roethke was counting on our familiarity with this bird to put the finishing touches on his characterization of Jane.