Friday, June 01, 2007

The Thing With Feathers

The movie Jurasic Park opened my eyes to birds. One of the ideas the movie brought out was that dinosaurs didn't disappear per se, they just evolved into birds. At the time, this was a fringe-y idea in paleontology; it was widely believed that with their walnut sized brains, dinosaurs were barely alive, big and stupid. As such, they'd make poor action movie adversaries. But imbued with bird behavior, those veloceraptors could hunt, strategize, work cooperatively, and figure out how to open doors. Since the movie--and probably because of the movie--the idea that dinosaurs were huge, featherless birds has pretty much gained currency.

I went through my "dinosaur phase" in the second grade. Loved loved loved dinosaurs, and I still do. Whenever there's a dinosaur article in the Tuesday "Science of the Times" section, I devour it.

But as I said, I started to notice birds, loving the idea that all of us were in the midst of thousands of dinosaurs, and that watching a flock of pigeons in the park wouldn't be that much different than watching a herd of ankylosaurs.

This Spring, birds have taken on new meaning for me. It started with the window robin.

Near the chair where I'm sitting as I write is a large picture window, looking out towards the back yard. Right outside the window is a philodendron, currently in bloom with it's gaudy surely-this-belongs-in-Hawaii flowers. And as soon as the robins came back when the weather warmed up, window robin appeared. He announced his arrival by knocking against the window.

I thought at first it was the case that he saw his reflection in the glass, thought it was another robin challenging his territory, and was defending his claim. I taped some white paper to the window, but this had no effect.


He persisted, regular as clockwork every morning, and sometimes returning in the afternoon.

But then I noticed that unlike other birds that flew into the window, window robin was different. He sort of flies up close to it, and presses his trademark red breast up against the window, tossing his head back and chirping.

I don't think he's defending his territory at all. I think window robin does this because he likes to. Window robin is crazy.

And then, later, porch sparrow showed up.

Out on the screened-in front porch, every morning I find bird droppings on the white table cloth. And several times when I've been out there, porch sparrow comes in through one of the little openings where the struts don't quite meet the concrete or over the sagging screen doors. And he flies around and hangs out in there for a while. When I get up to shhoo him, he finds an exit and leaves.

Now, there's nothing in there for him! No water, no food, nothing. What the hell, porch sparrow?

Clearly, porch sparrow is crazy.

Well, porch sparrow and I have gotten used to each other. He doesn't bother me, and I don't bother him. And just this morning, he paid a visit. Hopping in, flying around, singing some, and then leaving.

All this leads me to the awareness that birds have personalities.

Birds are no longer just birds. Although I guess I knew this, but I saw them as kinds of birds: robins, sparrows, crows, jays, pheasants, pigeons, turkey vultures, owls, hawks. And different kinds of birds had different traits.

But I think there's something more there. Each individual bird has likes, dislikes, preferences, aversions, typical behaviors. Some birds are playful, some birds are all about Getting Things Done, some birds are sociable, some birds like to be alone, some birds are adventurous, some birds play it safe, some birds want to be part of the action, some birds like to hang back and watch, some birds like a new challenge, some birds just like to keep things simple...

To someone who has never spent time with dogs, dogs are dogs. But I know Faithful Companion inside and out. I know all the aspects of him--at least those he shows me, because I wouldn't be surprised, thoughtful dog that he is, if he had a "private side." Faithful Companion has a personality.

And the idea that all those birds out there have personalities, too... It's almost overwhelming to think about. All those little bundles of intentionality and idiosyncracy.


I wonder if my porch sparrow has come to the same revelation about me.

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