Birds of a Feather

I’m crazy about birds, so it’s no surprise they figure prominently in my novel
The History of My Body. No matter what kind of mood I’m in, I set out on my walk each morning knowing my spirits’ll soon soar at the trill of a mockingbird, the melancholy plaint of a dove, a cacophony of wild parrots sweeping by overhead, the surprisingly high-pitched call and response of the red-tailed hawk couple deigning to settle this year into my urban neighborhood.

Maybe it’s because they manage to escape the pull of gravity, or perhaps it’s down to my father teaching me every verse to Annabel Lee, but sometimes I think of birds as the spirits of our ancestors, here to have a laugh or two, but mostly to look out for us. I figure that if the birds ever go, we may as well call it a day. It’s one reason I hyperventilate when I hear about the critically endangered status of the whooping crane, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the ruby-throated hummingbird, our own California condor. “C’mon, people,” I find myself muttering, “what’s it gonna take to get the message that our fate is tied to the wellbeing of our fellow creatures, that we exist at the indulgence of a Mother whose patience we’re trying to the breaking point?” But mostly, I’m just grateful for the birds.


There’s one species of avian, though, that I never took much of a liking to. You can find scores of them where I live. Big, ungainly, with indiscriminate appetites degenerating at times to downright cannibalism, blasting the peace with what has to be the most jarring birdcall on the planet. I’m talking about the oft-derided, metaphorically-encumbered, West-Nile-virus-vulnerable crow.

Which is why I was surprised when my heartbeat accelerated as I noted that a smallish crow on the sidewalk didn’t fly off when I walked toward it. Actually, I wasn’t aiming for the crow, but for an electrician who’d arrived to repair one of the five million things in a house that need repairing in any given year. Rather than flapping its way across the street or up to a branch of my neighbors’ imperious sycamore, it nervously edged away from me with one of those little crow-hops that looks like a cross between a skip and a bounce. “Oh shit,” I thought, “an injured baby bird.”

I’d had my share of trying to save wounded birds. My record as a bird savior was pretty pathetic. Not only had the birds never made it, but I’d been left feeling each time as if a relative had died and that my failure was A BAD SIGN. I think I actually wrung my hands as I called my electrician’s attention to the crow a few yards away from our feet.

He shot the bird a casual glance. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “a fledgling.”

“Do you think it’s injured? It’s not flying.”

“Nah, just a fledging.”

Image via Chocky/ThamesValleyBirds.co.uk

Our conversation was starting to feel like a variant of “Who’s on First?” I’d always assumed that fledgings were merely baby birds. The electrician must have read the ignorance in my eyes. He patiently explained that the word fledging refers to those species of young birds that must fall or be kicked out of the nest, consigned by nature to find ways to survive on the ground for several days before they can actually fly. Young Miss or Master Crow was presumably camping out on my lawn in that fragile fledgling state, but was – according to my electrician - likely to take wing in a day or two and join the rest of the crowd doing a fair imitation of their Hitchcockian lantsmen by pecking aggressively at my skylight.

I kept a kind of vigil after that, drawn by an unexpected sympathy for a creature who, before it could fulfill the promise of its shiny black wings, had to hold its own on a turf beset by cars and a dozen contentious feral cats fed by an aging neighbor, whose front yard was littered with open cans of Fancy Feast in place of the more traditional garden gnomes. A couple of days into my watch, I shuffled onto the driveway to collect my morning paper just in time to see the bird spread its wings and waft across the street as casually as if it had been flying forever.

I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for crows ever since. Even if they do bang empty cat food cans against my skylight from time to time. They’re a reminder of what we have to endure whenever we set forth on an unfamiliar path, undertake a new enterprise, struggle to set our spirits free: to soar. Who knows? If we humans have the good sense to turn around our hell-bent determination to destroy our habitat and actually survive a few more generations, I might not even mind coming back as a crow. 

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