An Ode To Birds, The Original Ode To Joy
You may be a suburbanite trapped in a concrete life, but you still enjoy the occasional warble or chirp
I have no idea how I got to it. It was my first library experience, over at the Venezuelan-American Center (Centro Venezolano-Americano) in Caracas, perhaps the most famous English institute in the country. I was simply looking for a book to take home, being the consummate bookworm that I was. And, being the nature geek I (still) am, I didn’t choose a novel; I chose a copy of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.
Those who know me well enough know my fascination with the natural world. I had guides of all North American wildlife at home, even though I was in Venezuela. I have two wildlife encyclopedias, one in Spanish, one in English, both battered and even desecrated, back in my childhood home. But finding a copy of Birds of America was a revelation. Of course it wasn’t one of the original copies — you know, the ones some people buy for 9.6 million dollars — but still, it was one of those legendary tomes that one aspires to handle at least once, be one a book nerd or a bird nerd. I took it home, read through it — although it doesn’t have much text — and reveled at the amazing paintings. Bald eagle, painted bunting, barn owl, whooping crane, red-winged starling… I knew them all, and yet I was seeing them for the first time. To know that at least six of the species Audubon collected and painted for the book — the great auk, the Labrador duck, the Carolina parakeet, the eskimo curlew, the heath hen, and the very famous passenger pigeon (see below)— were long extinct by the time I was looking at them on these pages even made me a little sad.
I think birds are one of those things that you actually take for granted if you live in a big city. You wake up, you hear them, you go on with your life… if you’re really that cynical or pragmatic. Not me. One of the greatest things I miss when I traded Caracas for Orlando is the morning chorus of birds either saying “keep away”, “good morning”, or “pay me, sucka”. I don’t live near enough woods to hear anything when I do wake up, and normally what greets is a cacophony of caws by the local crows, or the complaint of the red-tailed hawk being harassed by said crows. Sometimes I get lucky and hear the cheeky screeches of the local blue jays, and when I drop my girl at school there’s a couple of northern mockingbirds having a lengthy and beautiful conversation. I sometimes just stand and listen for a few moments before I head home, trying to absorb some of the good vibes.
I write this and I actually smile remembering it, like a distant childhood joy. And that is one thing why birds are and should be important to all: they bring that kind of joy when we have them in our day to day. It’s our reminder to a long ago time when birds dominated everything, not drones or city lights. So yes, I absolutely got super excited when I spotted a loggerhead shrike just outside my favorite Taco Bell. I smile every time I see turkeys the size of Velociraptors near Disney World. I took the appearance of a male cardinal just before my lady took her driver’s license test as a sign she would ace it (she did). And I shared the wonder with my girl when two huge sandhill cranes flew just above our heads one early morning. And don’t even get me started about the time, a couple of weeks ago, I discovered that two of my neighbors are a pair of ospreys and, at least some days, the USA’s national bird — a bald eagle.
This is one of the reasons we domesticate birds: we want to bring some of that joy into the house. Be it canaries, parakeets, parrots, cockatoos, macaws, finches, mynahs or, like I did, lovebirds, to bring a bird into the house is to bring joy — if you are responsible. Most domestic birds have very specific needs if they are to feel free enough to act naturally. I’ve had a black-capped lovebird named Sky since July 7th, and it breaks my heart to still have him in the cage. That is why I persist in my efforts to tame him enough so he can roam freely through the house and not pierce our ears with his (or her) raucous calls. We want to bring the joy of “bird-dom” into our houses, but not be selfish about it.
And selfishness is the problem: we insist that birds must come second to our needs. I’ve never been an advocate of burning down civilization to let nature recover from all the ravages mankind has rained upon it, but I certainly share David Attenborough’s vision that we truly need to control the population’s growth lest we have no planet left. And birds are a great indicator of the health of our planet — though, as author Jonathan Franzen argued in his essay for National Geographic, we shouldn’t need them to know when we are polluting too much. There is mangrove in northern Venezuela called La Restinga Lagoon, that was famous for its flocks of scarlet ibis and flamingoes, but too many tourist boats drove them away (and let’s not talk about the rest of the state of the country). The red siskin or cardenalito faced serious danger of extinction because of illegal trappings and habitat destruction, and now is under strict protection. And as for the States, I’ll let you look at Audubon’s special report that is just depressing and very, very real: 389 species of North American birds, two-thirds of all its species, face extinction due to climate change.
Near the end of his NatGeo essay, Franzen writes about his encounter with two great hornbills in a forest in India. “ They had massive yellow bills and hefty white thighs; they looked like a cross between a toucan and a giant panda. As they clambered around in the tree, placidly eating fruit, I found myself crying out with the rarest of all emotions: pure joy. It had nothing to do with what I wanted or what I possessed. It was the sheer gorgeous fact of the great hornbill, which couldn’t have cared less about me”.
Franzen also has one great line in that essay: “ [Birds’] indifference to us ought to serve as a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things”. Until they live with us and accept us, or until we bother them with our presence, birds gleefully ignore us in our day to day. They never harm us, they never ask anything of us, and merely take advantage of whatever we lay out that might suit them, be it new places to nest or roost or, like a pigeon that briefly became my building mate, easy food.
We owe birds so much, whether it’s food, company, or simple pleasures in life. The least we could do is make the world safe for them again. Don’t capture wild birds. Don’t harass them. Don’t have a pet bird and neglect to interact with it. Don’t be assholes to birds.