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)

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