It’s like this: they are everywhere. Pigeons pecking at the sidewalk as you walk along, scattering at your feet. Sparrows twittering and bouncing brownly on branches above you. Robins hopping around the yard, chests puffed out, gossiping in groups. Gulls wheeling overhead, shouting to each other like construction workers. They are so much around that we hardly even see them. This is probably how they prefer it.
It’s also like this: they are small, light, and when they are just a few days or weeks old, they spread their new wings and take off into the air, up and away. This is possibly one of the most magical things that happens all the time, all over the world, daily. It’s happening right now. These small creatures fly.
No person could invent, imagine, or build a creature such as a bird. Birds are a miracle of natural engineering. Feathers are a marvel unto themselves, some built for warmth, some speed, some attraction, and some airworthiness. See that mallard dabbling around the pond near your house? His handsome feathers are also waterproof and buoyant. For their size, birds are extraordinarily light while also being tough. The Eagle Owl, one of the bigger birds, with a wingspan of roughly 5 feet or more, weighs on average about 6 pounds. A similarly sized dog, say a small pitbull terrier, might weigh 24 pounds or more. Sir Owl will, winging around his territory, also eat other birds of prey. Or perhaps a small puppy. (I jest, I think.)
Regard a bird in a tree; any common catbird or sparrow will do. Its shape is precisely that of a leaf, fluttering in the breeze. The feathers of that Eagle Owl, and his tree dwelling brethren, the Great Horned, the Short Eared, the Barred, and the Screech (both Eastern and Western) are the exact color, shade, and pattern of the bark of the trees in which it waits to haunt and hunt its prey. It turns its head and disappears. The feathers of the various warblers decorating your hedge each May are the colors of new leaves shaking in the spring sun against the bright sky, yellows, greens, blues, blacks, whites, olives, and browns. The fastest creature on earth is not a cheetah striding across the open savannah or a sailfish torpedoing through the ocean: it is the peregrine falcon, aerodynamically diving towards its earthbound prey at 240 miles per hour. The falcons aren’t hiding; you can see them on every continent on earth, save Antartica. A blackpoll warbler, as big as your fist, can fly 1800 miles over the ocean open, with nowhere to stop. The smallest warm blooded creature is no mouse or shrew; it’s a bee hummingbird, the size of which it is.
If you love birds you are never bored. Sitting on an airplane, stuck on the tarmac while waiting to take off, you may gaze out the small blurry window and see a red-tailed hawk catch a thermal, lifting it high into the sky. It drifts away effortlessly, wings outstretched, to parts unknown. Maybe it’s going where you are. You may get caught up in the sparrows’ rigid hierarchical dances as you sit at a cafe waiting for a friend. The bigger the black beard patch, the more powerful the bird in the actual pecking order. You can get sucked into their petty squabbles and dramas as you wait for your cocktails to arrive, as entertaining as any soap opera or reality show. Will she get the seed? Will he? Will he win her heart with it? Will they or won’t they? Beware the new black-beard in town! Come back next week and learn more.
Some birds are glamorous and known; there are your noble Bald Eagles (though their real life behavior is more scavenger than knight), your preening gorgeous peacocks, your striding flamingos. When an owl catches a hare under the snow we admire it with for doing what we know it must do. Then, there are your surprises. The Loggerhead Shrike is a songbird that looks the part, cute and bright, as it daintily and viciously impales a lizard on the barbed wire fence it perches upon. See those jewel toned hummingbirds dipping and twirling around your feeder? The males use their own bodies as battering rams, trying to knock the other out of the air. That cheerful little house wren is having a ball destroying its neighbor’s nest. A Cowbird treats the Chipping sparrow as its own personally nanny service, placing its eggs in her nest and departing. The sparrow doesn’t mind. The little nuthatch calling “yank yank yank” on a cold winter day does it while defying gravity, running up and down the trunk of its tree, more spider than Spiderman (and which it would happily eat).
And what animals have more style than birds? Take the common and commonly overlooked female cardinal. We love to see her handsome husband with his fiery red plumage darting through the brush, but she is a more stylish bird by far. Her body is a tawny pale brown, her soft fawn wings and crested brow are accented with red piping along the edges. Her beak is a perfectly complementary shade of orange, an exclamation point in color. She is beautiful and outside in your backyard right now, all things being equal on the East Coast of North America. Egrets on their supermodel legs are an elegant white against the dark water. Crows and Ravens are gothic, cool, smart, and proud in their capes of black feathers. Their curved beaks are not ugly; they are necessary elevating details for snatching things away. They are consistent in their brand; a group of crows is a murder and a group of ravens is a conspiracy. And not only do they mourn their dead, Crows have been observed to have necrophiliac tendencies. They are an art project. Even the common chatty starling is a riot of iridescence and spots. I needn’t bother to mention the bold birds of paradise, nor the flagrant parrots and cockatiels of the tropical forests. And toucans with their jeweltoned beaks are just showing off.
And so, now, in this complicated world, birds are a relief to the eye and to the spirit. Well, to mine at least. Tiny golden and ruby-crowned Kinglets in numbers too large to count, flocked and chirping fearlessly on a tree in Central Park. Bold, they land at eye level, hand level, boy level. A heron stalking, majestic and blue, is wild. When do we see such magic? Only when we look.