Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why we like birds

Mom said that people are interested in birds only in as much as they exhibit human behavior—greed and stupidity and anger—and by doing so they free us from the unique sorrow of being human . . . I told Mom my own theory of why we like birds—of how birds are a miracle because they prove to us there is a finer, simpler state of being which we may strive to attain.
— Douglas Coupland, Life After God

The other day, I walked out my front door to go to the post office and heard a frenzy of crows caw-caw-cawing. Maybe there was a raptor somewhere, I thought. I looked up, and there were five crows mobbing a Red-tailed Hawk in a tree. The hawk, despite having claws for spearing prey and a beak for tearing it apart, flew away like a dart. The crows pursued it for a minute or so, until it was nowhere to be seen; then they returned, victorious, to their tree. 

The ruthless simplicity of nature—that's one of the things that draws me to watching birds. The decision was simple for the crows: Hawks kill our babies, we must attack. It was equally simple for the hawk: Too many beaks coming at me all at once, time to find another tree.

Our complex brains, with layers added one on top of the other like blankets on an evolutionary bed, make all kinds of exquisite options available to us that aren't available to birds. Crows are intelligent and playful; they can even devise their own tools. But they can't blog about their experience with that threatening hawk. They can't paint a picture of it or write a poem about it fleeing. They can't design and build an aircraft based on the way that hawk flew. 

And there are moments when I envy them for that, because it also means that they can't get tangled up in anxieties and neuroses and trivial things. Online shopping. The strange, lost-lonely feeling you get when you realize you really don't know whether you want 1 for billing or 2 for account inquiries. That someone else always seems to be more on top of things or happier or nicer to people than you are. Memories of long-ago embarrassment or shame or regret that feel as fresh as if they happened today. Standing in the grocery store and feeling overwhelmed by choice but never being able to find what you need or want . . .

Birds in the wild have concerns, too, but they can be reduced to one thing: the blood-pumping, oxygen-sucking urge to stay alive and nurture new life. (The next day, one of the five crows was using its beak to ferry wads of lovely soft mulch material from a garden bed up to the treetop to build a nest for the spring.) Watching birds reminds us that beneath all the layers, all creatures, including us, are driven by one thing: the simple urge for life. Birds turn the volume down on the noise inside our heads; they let us glimpse for a moment a reality that we spend most of our waking lives too busy to see. They remind us that it is time to live right now, this moment. Time to suck in that oxygen and feel your heart pumping!

American Crow image: J. J. Audubon, Birds of America (public domain)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache

If going to Bosque del Apache (the Woods of the Apache) in New Mexico taught me one thing, it's that there is a place on this Earth for all approaches to life; there is a niche for every creature, no matter what its disposition. The relaxed and unhurried, the frantic and driven; the casually sociable, the desperately communal. Take the wintering Snow Geese. They huddle close together on the ice for the night, and the very first instant the sun hits them, they pop up, one by one in rapid succession, as if someone flipped a switch --

And all at once, as if they were each a part of one much larger creature, they snap into the air, with a deafening, disorienting, exhilarating beating of wings. They have fields to eat their way through, and they must do it NOW, with everybody else.

I love Snow Geese. I've loved them ever since I read "The Snow Goose" by Paul Gallico when I was a kid. I liked the idea of being that migrating Snow Goose, having the freedom to fly away and then return each year to the friendly man in the old lighthouse who'd saved it from hunters. But at Bosque del Apache, I had to admit that I am nothing like a Snow Goose at all. The Sandhill Crane lifestyle is much more my speed.

A half hour or so later, most of them are still clacking around on the frozen pond, doing a slow-motion tap dance. No rush for them. There is preening to do. And spying --

They don't feel the need to conform and all fly at once. It's an individual choice, it seems. But there is a lot of umming and ahhing about it. First there is the pitching forward of the neck. They always pitch themselves forward like this when they are about to take off. But the simple fact that a bird is pitching itself forward does not mean it's about to fly. No, it might well change its mind. What is it waiting for? Who knows.

Well, there is more preening and spying to do.

Wings to stretch.

And talking. A lot of talking. Sandhill Cranes are very chatty.

Eventually, a bird will not only pitch forward but will move to the next phase and actually take a few loping strides forward across the ice and begin to lift off -- with all the lightness of a C-130 cargo plane. There is a kind of uplift, but then after a few flaps there is a moment when you think "No, it can't possibly get fully airborne," but then after a few more flaps, the bird is arcing through the sky gracefully -- yet making a call that sounds like a person joyously and enthusiastically trying to play the bugle for the first time.

That the Apache camping here hundreds of years ago probably watched the ancestors of these birds do exactly this just makes it all the more extraordinary to witness.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Things I am grateful for today

  • The sound Mute Swans' wings make as they fly overhead, like a piece of rusty old farm machinery shooting through the air.
  • The Song Sparrow who was singing on my morning walk. I didn't even realize I'd missed your call all winter long until I heard it again today. I'm glad you no longer have to huddle down in the grass, hiding from the bitter wind.
  • The rat-tat-tat of the Belted Kingfisher flying up and down the harbor. You're such a mystery to me -- darting by so fast, appearing and then disappearing, like the Phantom. You nest somewhere within the earth on the banks of the harbor each spring, but you do an amazing job of keeping the location a secret.
  • The wail of a gull that I mistook for a baby for a second.
  • The Northern Cardinals who are going off like alarm clocks all over the neighborhood. Spring! Spring! Spring!
  • The Buffleheads who spent most of the winter in Milford harbor, the first time I've seen that happen. You guys have no idea how cute you are, diving down then popping up like rubber duckies in a bath tub. Stay. Have babies.

Bird Clipart Images