Birds. No terrestrial creature is more fantastical, more bizarre, more varied or more beautiful than birds. Birds, trees, gems, fish, coral, butterflies and flowers are the primary sources of color in our world. The list is short, and life on a planet without them would be drab and depressing. Color shocks and, not surprisingly, all of these galvanize a large following of enthusiasts. None are more passionate, or as legion, than birders.
Bird watchers are commonly noted for their fanaticism and often viewed, with some amusement, as oddballs. There is an obsessive, competitive, know-it-all subspecies of this flock that is notable on closer viewing of their collective habits. Most are gentle souls who delight in a “walk-in-the-woods.” What animates them all, at the deepest level, is wonder. Birding is a treasure hunt. A speck in the sky, an almost undetectable sound in the thicket, a camouflaged rustle in the reeds, a hole on a tree—or a cactus!—that flicks with movement, suddenly transformed to a bejeweled presence when sighted through the lens of a binocular’s magnification. From mundane to miraculous by merely lifting the glasses. What could be more thrilling?!
It is a measure of the numbing effects of routine and habit that we travel our days largely unaware or uninterested in these creatures in our midst. Language, one of our most precious attributes that joins us together, also anesthetizes. This was dramatically demonstrated to me on a summer visit to a new place, when, surrounded by the novelty of the unfamiliar, I heard a raucous, rowdy, insistent call of a bird. I was able to spy it through binoculars and was stunned by its exotic beauty. From behind, it shaded from an indigo blue at its head through azure, finally ending in almost aquamarine at the tip of its tail. The wing and tail feathers were ridged in black stripes, etched with contrasting splashes of white. A white chest and neck lead to a face with black stripes through the eyes that connected with a ring of black that circled from under the chin across the crown of the head. And, atop the head, a crest. I called to Sharon: “Come, quick, see this!”. She did; she said: “It’s a blue jay.”
For that brief moment, I saw this remarkable being, free from the encumbrances of language, habit and routine. It exposed the power of naming, which domesticates the world, providing us handles and footholds that allow a measure of perceived control, intimating understanding and thereby assuaging the anxiety, fright, and wonder of being in the world, naked, without a fig leaf.
I have had other disorienting encounters with birds. Rounding a curve in a path, I came face to face, eye to eye, with an owl. Two piercing yellow eyes that peered directly at me; unlike most birds, its eyes are not on the side of its head, but fronted, like human eyes, in a direct, unnerving stare. Human-like consciousness was intimated in this locked-gaze encounter, but a disconcerting difference was signaled in their alien yellow color.1
Then there was seeing a great blue heron in a marsh near the LA airport. This huge bird, 4 feet tall, taking flight, with its long neck leading to a pointed head with fierce war-like coloring and a crest, ending with a dagger-stabbing bill, majestically lifting off on a 6 foot wing span. Suddenly, I saw a dinosaur—a pterodactyl, in my midst. Dumbstruck, I realized that progeny of creatures from the Jurassic age fill our skies.
Birds are everywhere. Hiding in the bush, stealthy stalking in the glade, plunging into the lake, gliding in the updrafts, bobbing in the water, scurrying across the desert, skimming the water’s surface, dodging the in-and-out ocean wash, burrowing in the sand, hunting in the tundra, swooping and diving, darting from flower to flower, marching across ice flows, roosting in the tropical canopy.
They fill our world with their voices: mourning, crowing, peeping, chirping, quacking, squawking, drumming, hooting, whistling, warbling, cackling, cooing, screeching, “drink-your-tea”2, and larking. Life-music signaling, saying, singing their urgent desires of warning, mating, and “calls of contact”.
Birds can be found day and night, in all seasons, in all locals. Their flight underscores that we are inelegant, lumbering bottom feeders. The wide universe of their shapes, colors, and strangeness are beyond what we are capable of dreaming; they are an alien presence alerting us to this uncanny world that is our home.
Birds “brain” us, club us into the miracle of this moment. They are just outside the window, beaconing…go forth and birdwatch, bird-listen—without words, naked.