Ever since I sat in a movie theater years ago and watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, I’ve had a strange fascination with our winged co-habitants here on Earth. Not some “birder” fascination, where I might spend hours out in the field recording every song and sighting. Rather, simply the acknowledgement that birds live in such close proximity every day, but we rarely devote much thought to them. They are background clutter most of the time, that fleeting glimpse of a pair of bluebirds swooping from tree to tree, a mess on the sole of your shoe if you tread where a Canadian goose has waddled by, the hummingbird with his beak stuck in the porch screen. You gently set him free to the disgust of the watching cats, that sort of thing.
But once in a while, just once in a long while, the birds intrude into our lives. Who hasn’t been dive-bombed by a jay protecting a nest? Who hasn’t spotted powder blue robin’s egg lying broken on a sidewalk? Who doesn’t love California’s Bodega Bay…oh, wait, that’s just another allusion to the movie. Sorry, got distracted.
The other morning I stood on our terrace , espresso cup in hand as I looked out over our small fish pond. I noticed a sudden movement on one large, sloping boulder. A bright-red berry had popped out from beneath the overhanging Pyracantha bush and was rolling down to finally rest on a stone shelf near the water. It traveled a good four feet.
Meanwhile, a bird emerged from deep in the bush, cocking its head to the side as it watched the berry find its way to the bottom. Now I have no idea what kind of a bird we’re dealing with here, just one of that brown sort of average size and—one would guess—average bird intelligence. But this one hopped down to the now stationary berry, picked it up in its beak, hopped back up to the top of the boulder and released it again. This time the bird raced alongside the ball, keeping a close eye on its descent. It was playing, doing what any kid would do, finding fun in seeing how the thing bounced down the uneven surface.
During one descent the red ball lodged in a crack in the rock, and the bird lifted it out and sent it back on its way. It played this game with the same berry a half-dozen more times before abruptly stopping, looking over at me, then picking up the berry and flying off into the trees. I assume to find a rock elsewhere where no watched to spoil its private fun.
Science tells us that birds are the last of the dinosaurs, so it only makes sense that, having survived many millions of years, their brains must have a pretty good development for survival. But for play? Can you imagine watching adult velociraptors chase a primordial melon down a boulder, just for fun?
Which brings me to this: as I returned home this morning from a walk, I took a moment to stare up into a beautiful sky. You know the moment, when the fall air feels crisp, and the trunks of the birch trees, having lost most of their leaves to the latest storm, contrast so sharply with the bright blue sky. And there, sixty feet above me, sat two huge vultures staring down with their yellow-rimmed red eyes. They were all fluffed up to catch the first rays of the sun, and watched me with curiosity. And I wondered what might be going through their minds. Their kind has certainly been around for a lot longer than mine, gathering around a feast provided by nature.
So as you’re gorging yourself on turkey this Thanksgiving, be thankful that the birds have grown smaller over time. But, just to be on the safe side, you may want to glance out your window to be certain the nearest tree doesn’t teem with Raptors, cocking their heads to the side and wondering just how you might bounce, rolling down a boulder toward some pond below.
Copyright 2014 Patrick W. O’Bryon