Tom teaches anyone who gets to the Audubon Center in Montecito Heights by 6:30 on Tuesday mornings how to band birds, and I’m there, mostly because I’m lonely in a new city. The service is free, though he says several times in the course of my first day that they’re “kicking around” the idea of asking for $25 dues next season. The money would pay for equipment, like new nets. As we put the well-worn ones they currently use up near the feeders, I notice holes in the webbing. When the poles reach more than six feet in the air and twice as long across, the black filter it creates across the sky is ominous.
Almost immediately, a small grey bird becomes entangled. A volunteer named Cathy works it out of the tight thin fibers.
“Do people ever accidentally kill the birds?” I ask, because the delicate operation looks like a prelude to strangulation at the hands of amateur bird obsessives.
“It’s happened,” she says. “But not to me.”
We check the nets every 20-30 minutes. Standing too close will deter the specimens, but I can’t help imaging a bird hanging itself while we’re eating cookies at the picnic table. Tom tells the story of an ornithologist who was recently murdered by a heron.
The way birds most often kill people is by attacking their eyes, says Tom. The orbital bone is extremely thin and a beak is extremely strong. A large bird can crush your skull right into your brain, killing you instantly.
When we go up to the nets again, it’s happened. A white-crown sparrow hangs lifeless in the net. It hasn’t been asphyxiated; nearby, a Cooper’s hawk bounces off a tree. The hawk couldn’t extricate its treat, but it took advantage of the opportunity to smoosh the sparrow’s head.
Once you start to notice birds, it’s like listening to a radio frequency caught between two stations. Every once in awhile, the bird’s reality becomes louder for me than the human one. The reason you don’t think about birds is because they’re everywhere, but imagine a landscape without birdsong. It’s a dystopia.
Birds are descended from meat-eating dinosaurs, like velociraptors. This is a relatively new understanding of evolution. Most people my age were raised to believe that dinosaurs were just giant lizards who are all dead. Humans are also heading for a mass die-off, though it will likely be by our own hand rather than an asteroid. As we go, we’re trying hard to take the birds with us. In 2014, around 1,300 species were threatened with extinction. That’s a lot, because birds are amazingly adaptable, much like us. In every corner, they’re building nests and painting the walls with excrement, as a reminder that some things remain. One day, when we are gone, another form of dinosaur will soar over our compressed bones.
While I was feeding the ducks at a pond near my summer camp, a swan charged me. I ran into a light pole, smashing my knee, which stayed swollen for weeks. The swan retreated once I was on the ground.
In high school, my mother called me at home from where she was cat and bird-sitting at her friend Daria’s house to say the bird had escaped and the cat was on the prowl. When I arrived to help, she pointed me toward the door where the cockatiel was last seen. Inside, the room seemed to be listening. Songbirds give rooms consciousness, the sense that someone is paying attention. They’re like tiny gods in cages.
I clapped loudly, twice. In the corner under a curtain, the cockatiel squawked, shocked out of its mind by this bold maneuver. It seemed almost relieved to see a person. It inched along the radiator towards me, then promptly latched. As colorful and sweet as these birds look, the strength and texture of their claws is alarming. It’s like holding hands with a little girl and finding out she has the fingers of a grandparent.
The cockatiel was relaxed right up until the moment we reached its cage. Freedom may have been terrifying, but it still made a furious attempt to escape as the gate closed.
The Robin At My Window
My first apartment out of college was in a part of Brooklyn with enough wildlife to make the walls feel thin. Our freestanding house was under constant attack. Bees tunneled through and filled the living room, raccoons went through our trash and climbed the telephone poles, peering into bedrooms, and I was woken at dawn my very first morning by a robin that seemed determined to enter.
Beginning at first light, the robin slammed repeatedly against the window glass. It was a horrifying way to wake up. I was certain it was a bad omen. A robin killing itself on your home is a sick christening. Over and over again, it battled its reflection. I tried opening the window, leaving the dusty screen, but it just moved lower, finding itself in any mirroring surface.
Disoriented and disturbed, I went to sleep on the floor of my roommate’s bedroom on the other side of the house, since she was out. Just as I dozed off, the robin came knocking again on her window.
Butch moved into our apartment for what was supposed to be a month long stay. My roommate Claire’s parents were traveling and she had agreed to care for the grey parrot while they were away. It soon became apparent that Butch had always been Claire’s pet; he’d attached to her early, pined for her while she was in college, and will likely be obsessively in love with her for the next 80 years, which is approximately how long a grey parrot lives. Butch soon became a permanent resident of our living room, when he wasn’t riding Claire’s shoulder from room to room, shitting, spitting, and lashing out at anyone who came within three feet of her.
Parrots have a human-like lifespan, and they are also about as smart as a two-year-old. That’s smart for a bird, but stupid for a person. You can’t really reason with a two-year-old, or tell them not to bite you or not to drink water because it has their own poop in it. Happily, most human two-year-olds are soft and squishy, with poor motor skills. Butch was a baby with a beak that could crush bone, who didn’t particularly care if I was trying to be nice to him—unless I was holding a sliced grape. Human children like sliced grapes as well, so that much crossed over.
With grapes I could go near Butch, but otherwise I gave him a wide berth no matter how mournfully he called, “Hi Butch!” in Claire’s voice from the living room on nights when she was out with her actual boyfriend.
On such a night, I came home to a dark house and screamed when a sad voice at my feet murmured, “Hello.” He’d fallen out of his cage and been left forgotten on the floor.
The Hawk In The Graveyard
Snow had recently covered Greenwood Cemetery. The cemetery is famous for being home to notable Brooklynites; its front entrance also houses several hundred monk parakeets. My mother and I entered through a less popular gate, along damp empty paths. I made a snow angel next to stone angels covered with snow and she helped me up. Laughing, we turned a corner.
Up in the tree, a hawk gnawed the meat off a mammalian leg. A rabbit or a squirrel. It held its meal to the branch with sharp talons, intent on tearing up ligaments. As we interrupted its meal, the hawk pierced us with a look. It said:
Go back, go back, go back.
Darnell was rescued from a yard where he’d been tied to a stake. His neck showed the raw mark of his former circumstances.
“We think someone had planned to turn him into a meal,” Rita McMahon, director of the Wild Bird Fund, almost whispered to me, as though Darnell might hear. I was filming clips of the birds living in the Upper West Side storefront for an educational video, and Darnell made a good subject. Rita dug deeper into a dish of crumbly stuff for mealworms, placing them carefully on a chair seat for the turkey to snap up.
In every room of the WBF, there is some other sorry case. You’ll turn the corner and find a goose with a broken wing, chickens that don’t lay eggs, a quail that lives in the laundry room, a seagull hiding behind the bathroom door. Hundreds and hundreds of pigeons. Some you aren’t supposed to talk to, in case it makes them vulnerable to humans when they’re released back into the wild. The turkey had already been meddled with as much as mankind can mess with a bird.
Darnell looked like he fell off the back of an industrial farm truck. Many of his smudgy white feathers had been worn off. He was the most stripped down concept of a turkey, starkly revealing his jurassic forebears in his walk and jerking head. While it was probably painful to be tied to a stake in a backyard, it’s hard to imagine he has really absorbed the change in his circumstances. His reality is eating mealworms off a chair now; that’s all there ever was or will be for him, until the next thing.
The Hummingbird On The Line
My sublet in LA has a large balcony that looks out over the city. You can see the Hollywood sign, the mountains, and the streets. This is the distant view, but in the foreground there are trees and telephone poles that contain a much smaller world. That world belongs to what I believe is an Anna’s hummingbird, who sits in the same spot on a wire every day about fifteen feet away. It has a reflective red head and its call sounds like the movie sound effect of a Star Wars laser gun, but at a slightly lower pitch. Pew pew pew! The sound is more like a feeling than a song.
At regular intervals, it does an aerial maneuver over where I sit. It seems oblivious to my presence, but intent on something. I’m seated almost directly in front of it with my computer open. This is a moment where I should be working, creating, self-promoting, but I can’t seem to start. It doesn’t matter very much to me if I do, which is the problem. For the hummingbird, everything it does seems to matter quite a lot.
Birds In The Bush
Back at the Audubon Center, everyone has extracted and banded a bird. In a large notebook beside the band number, the volunteers record the specimens’ molt, their wing length, their fat deposits, and anything else of note, like “weird beak.” This will all be added to a digital database.
Tom points to me and asks, “Did you get a bird?”
I’d been told that on your first day of bird banding you don’t get to handle them. You’re just there to watch and learn. More alarmed than thrilled, I explain I’m new. Tom insists I can do it. There is already a bird trapped in a cotton baggie, a grey hermit thrush. He pulls it out and shows me how to hold it—threading its head between index and pointer finger, thumb braced on its chest.
I expect a heartbeat, and do feel that rapid patter, but the sensation that surprises me is the bird’s vibration. Its body seems to hum in my hand, a current of life electrifying its hollow bones and air sacs. Maybe it’s simply frightened and shaking, like my cat on the way to the vet. But it feels like I have reached out into the atmosphere and grabbed loose matter, like it could change form instantly and become glitter or horseradish or a doll’s shoe. I manage to get the band on without the bird turning into sand.
“Now, blow there to check the fat,” Tom instructs gently, pointing at the bird’s soft chest. I blow on it like the flame of a birthday candle to much the same effect—it disappears. My grip wasn’t firm enough. We watch it flit back to the brush wearing a band with no corresponding information. It’s only a chunky bracelet now.
My first reaction is bemusement. How strange. I thought I was holding on hard enough, but no.
“That’s okay, that’s okay, it happens,” says Tom into the stunned silence. Everyone begins to echo him. After a few minutes of “it’s okay” I understand it is definitely not okay. It will clearly be a long time before this beginner is allowed another bird in the hand.
“What’s good is that you just let it go,” says Tom, still comforting me. Often when a bird escapes, people try to snatch it back out of the air and injure it. When a bird flies from you, there is no getting it back.
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