I love birds. I don’t know when it started, but it probably began as a fascination with the exotic birds I wondered over in the Encyclopedia as a six year old boy. The first real experience that I can remember with birds was when my two brothers and I built a string and basket trap, straight out of the boy scout handbook, to catch house sparrows in our backyard.
We propped up a card board box with a stick and string trigger. When the birds came to gobble up the bread crumbs we had strategically placed under the box, we were hiding several feet away in the bushes. We pulled the string at least twenty times before we finally caught our first sparrow. Stephen, the oldest of us, cradled the lone bird in his hands and held it gently. We stood there staring at our prize until the bird had had enough and pecked my brother on the finger. Startled more than hurt my brother opened his hands and the bird shot up into the eaves of the house. I fell to the ground in laughter and still laugh to this day when I think about that first experience with a live bird.
You may have read in this blog about my unfortunate experience with a mockingbird. But before that tragic event I would sometimes sit on the stoop in our backyard and listen to the mockingbird sing. It brought me such wonder and joy that years later I attempted to write a sonnet about the mockingbird. The sonnet was included in my first book of sonnets; and though nowhere near the masterpiece of Keats’, Ode To A Nightingale, it is one of my favorites. I learned later that there are actually some people who hate mockingbirds for their nocturnal warbling that keeps them awake at night. I, however, have lain upon my bed in the wee hours enraptured by the spirit song of the mockingbird. That as a youth, with too much devil in him according to my mother, I inadvertently killed a mockingbird is the source of pain I will never shed.
Then there is the pigeon. The much maligned ubiquitous creature of the urban environment. But pigeons are as misunderstood as they are ubiquitous. I do not believe that there is any species of bird that has been more maligned, more taken advantage of and killed to the point of extinction than the pigeon. When the street-palm trimmers came around all the kids would gather around as a trimmer would rescue a squab and hand it to cupped hands of one of us kids. I raised pigeons off and on over the years and would be proud to be an old man on a park bench feeding the pigeons. When I got older I ventured a climb up the crumbly bark of a palm tree in an attempt to gather a squab from its nest. I carefully avoided the sword-like leaves of the palm only to find that a pigeon had not been so careful, its skeletal remains clinging to a palm frond. I left nature as I had found it.
Yes, I love birds, but I am not a “birder” as some of my ranger and environmentalist friends claim to be, though in the approaching autumn of my years I do now keep a bird list. I am more a wonderer at birds, constantly fascinated by their mere existence. I once stood in the driveway of our home near a low brick wall that assured that we were good neighbors to Mr. Brown who lived next door. Standing there with nothing of importance on my mind, a hummingbird appeared before me and hovered for a number of seconds as if thinking, “I wonder what you are strange creature?” For me, I was spelled-bound and took the experience as a sign. A sign of what? I had no idea. It simply seemed to me that there was some sort of message in the encounter. I have seen countless hummingbirds since that singular experience. The funny thing is, I can remember nearly all of them. During breaks from classes at the ranger academy I would stand outside among the Monterey Pines and watch the mating ritual of the hummingbirds. A male hummingbird would climb high into the sky and at the apex of the climb give a loud peep and then dive down to just above the ground and immediately shoot back up in a steep climb with another loud peep at the top. It was the coolest thing in nature that I had ever witnessed.
I grew up in Los Angeles only a short bus ride from Santa Monica beach. The only shore birds I ever saw were sea gulls. The gulls were also famous for invading our school yard during lunch and pooping all over unsuspecting Jr. High school students. But when I became a ranger assigned to Hunting State Beach, Crystal Cove State Park, and Bolsa Chica State Beach, I learned that there were birds of wonder to be found of every type along the miles of the California coast. There was even a Least Tern preserve where the sand-nesting birds shared the beach with sunbathing humans stinking of sunblock. We did our best to protect the nesting birds in a chain link fenced preserve. Miraculously the birds survive and their aerial antics as they feed just off shore is a sight to behold.
Exotic birds are now brought into our living room televisions by NatGEO documentaries, but they don’t come anywhere near the thrill of seeing these creatures in the wild. Sleepy-eyed and barely able to drag myself out of bed at 4AM in the small Ecuadorian town of Mindo, I began my first journey into the mist of the cloud forest to catch a glimpse of the cock of the rock, or if you prefer, Rupicola peruvianus. It is the bird you see at the beginning of this blog.
The site of other exotic birds followed that morning and I was glad I struggled to wake myself at such an early hour to commune with my fellow creatures of the earth. I am fortunate to live in a place populated with many species of birds I thought that I would never see: from Andean condors and black chested buzzard eagles, to plate billed toucans and mountain blue tanagers, to indescribably brilliant humming birds. I often sit and wonder at the great variety of life on this planet.
Despite the fact that scientists like to reduce life to an evolutionary process that purports to explain how this great variety of life came to be, I can’t help but be filled with a sense that something greater and more wondrous and unknown is behind the miracle of birds and all life that populates the earth. No theory, no matter how robust, can take the place of the personal experience of connecting to the world around you, as manifested in my love of birds; or the sense of cosmic forgiveness I feel as a pair of mockingbirds nest in a tree just outside of my bedroom window, the male often singing deep into the wee hours bringing peace to a fellow wanderer upon the earth.
Categories: God and the Universe