On Being a Wild Bird
I want to be a wild bird, a bird on the hunt, on the lookout. I want to build a nest in a tree over a swampy marsh, scout out prey, watch for danger and changes in the weather. I want to swoop down, snag a fish with talons, and retreat to my perch; or hop along the forest floor, pick at worms and insects, grab a twig with my beak, and continue building my treehouse. I want to look down on the world, see how beautiful it is; and then, maybe, land on a pier or boardwalk and let people walk up close and get a good look at me; and then I want to peck them on the forehead and honk a mean-spirited laugh before flying off. Why would I want to do that? Because wild birds are unstable birds, a little bit chancy, and in touch with their God-created, boisterous nature.
Birds seemed to me a higher ordered creature than we humans. Some can swim underwater. Others can paddle around a pond or lake or even the ocean. They can walk on land, climb trees, and live underground. And, of course, they can fly. Without the need for metal wings or engines or pilots, they are higher dimensional creatures, not limited by the directions of a compass. They fly just inches above the ground and soar to the heights of a commercial airliner.
They say a person who wants to be a bird is someone who wants to overcome personal problems, or some such psychological corollary. Why would we not want to be a bird?
Birds stalk fish, get their feet dirty in boggy, quag land’s water, stand in pouring rain, extol the virtue of patients. They skim the ocean’s surface, run along rising and retreating tidelines. They snoot around in the sand looking for morsels, and spy schools of fish and plunge, high-dive like, into the water. They circle the clouds, inspecting roadside ditches and highway medians for red, stringy entrails and car-butchered carcasses. They pollinate flowers, live off seeds and berries and grains, and call the Garden of Eden home. Birds are graceful, funny looking, elegant, and smarter than we give their bird brains credit for.
Birds connote peace, hope, and new life. They are released at regal occasions like the Olympics, weddings, and funerals. They are said to ward off evil spirits, symbolize the coming of a divinity, and usher in prosperity and long life. The early Christian writer Clement had this to say about a bird: “There is a bird, which is named the Phoenix. This bird, the only one of its species, lives for five hundred years. When the time of its dissolution and death arrives, it makes for itself a coffinlike nest of frankincense and myrrh and the other spices, into which, its time being completed, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays, a certain worm is born, which is nourished by the juices of the dead bird and eventually grows wings. Then, when it has grown strong, it takes up that coffinlike nest containing the bones of its parent…it flies to the altar of the sun and deposits them there, and then it sets out on its return.” Before we dismiss Clement as a cryptozoologist obsessed with mythological creatures, consider the prophet Isaiah. “The beast of the field shall honor me, the dragons and the owls…” Granted, the King James Version is, well, the King James Version. But a dragon – a dragon is nothing more than a bird: a fire breathing, scaly winged, battle-axed-tailed bird. That’s my kind of bird.
Why wouldn’t I want to be a bird?
But that’s just the kind of bird I want to be: the wild, hard-living bird cloistered by the deep pockets of the natural world and a tab bit mythological. There are other kinds of birds. Birds I feel sorry for. Pretty birds of pity instead of gritty, snippy birds who are a little bit shifty. Birds of superficial piety instead of unabashed impropriety. Yes, these are the blue-blooded, neighborhood birds who balance feeders, chirp melodies, and peek through windows to taunt housecats. They are the country-club birds like Canadian geese who take up residence beside golf course ponds and waddle across subdivision streets with the presumption of right away. Decorative birds of college campuses, painting sidewalks and fountains with poo and feathers and bad attitudes. These birds, if they are really birds at all, are catered meals from hardware and grocery stores: nutritional diets of mealworms and cultivated sunflower seeds. They are hand-out, entitled birds squawking, “Feed me, feed me.” And so, we throw bread crumbs and crust and sandwich scraps, and get chased away from blankets and picnics and sunny days by crotchety, territorial cluckers chirping something like, “That’s my pew.”
They form committees and subcommittees with the neighborhood squirrels and rabbits, and negotiate imaginary problems. They gather in tree tops on Wednesday nights, tweet a pleasant, public message, and then talk turkey through the pecking order, ruffling feathers, trying to rule the roost. On Sunday mornings, they listen to a sitting duck lay an egg: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, the duck will quack. And The early bird gets the worm and Birds of a feather flock together. And cliché after cliché the lame duck will gaggle.
But worst of all, they talk bad about the wild, hard-living birds who have real lives. They see these real birds from time to time. They know they exist. But they are that other kind of bird. Occasionally, a true-spirited, gravel-in-the-gut bird will swing through a congregation of privileged birds. What brought this wild bird in the company of fellowship? Mishap, curiosity, fate? Who can say? But, oh, the sight. At first it is a welcomed “homecoming,” as though the poor, ragged creature had been somehow lost. And a good deal of sharing and charity commences, but kindness is quickly molted with a single, whispered quack. At first the quack will be dismissed. “He’s madder than a wet hen,” they will say. But nonetheless, the quack will spread throughout the flock like bird flu, mutating, gaining momentum, egged on by territory and fear. Watch him like a hawk, they will say. And, He came here naked as a jaybird, but now he struts like a rooster. And, This is our nest egg. Then, the domesticated birds will actually take credit for having built the country club, digging out wading ponds, and setting up bird feeders. By the sheer strength of summing the flock to this single cause, the domesticated birds will collectively convey to the wild bird that it’s time to go; its unwanted; it doesn’t belong. And when the bird has flown, the flock will congratulate themselves for the extended tolerance and acceptance they showed. They will say to each other, He was an odd bird. A real strange bird.
The wild bird will regard the flock amicably and return to the narrow providence of scouted meals. Once in a great while, the wild bird will think on the flock with nostalgia and conclude they are a relic, antiquated by irrelevance. And then the wild bird will notice something odd. In the trees and on the forest floor, standing motionless in the boggy, swamp waters, soaring high above a school of fish or a fallen deer, the bird sons and bird daughters, grandbirds, and latitudinal birds, birds from gated communities and shopping-mall-parking-lots birds claim there is a more authentic life out here in the natural world. They are the once-upon-a-time birds returning to fabled lands, where they will sing poetry. And once again birds will reclaim the skies, practice migration, and live wild and free on that resurrected fifth day – the untamed day made for chancy, unstable birds.