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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Monday, June 12, 2023

I was watching an old episode of Survivor. There were two or three super macho big bad cavemen boys beating their chests about how they were going to get food. And they saw a bird sitting up in a nest, one of those big island type of birds and they decided they wanted to eat it, but first they were going to get the eggs from the nest and eat those.

So this one guy climbs up the tree and starts swatting at this bird and making a big show of fighting it off, and the bird is squawking and flapping and the guy knocks the nest down to the ground and there is a general beating of the chests again until one of the guys realizes that they didn’t knock down a nest with eggs. They actually knocked a baby bird out.


Someone’s birthday balloon deflated, I can tell you that. These macho club-wielding men practically burst into tears. Big Macho Guy Number One picks up the baby bird and is holding it in his hand and petting it and saying how it was just born, and it can’t even be a day old, and he didn’t mean to knock it down and he feels terrible. Big Macho Guy Number Two says he will put it back in the nest and brings the nest back up into the tree and puts the bird in it, the whole while apologizing to the mother bird about how sorry, sorry, sorry he is. And he didn’t mean it and he shouldn’t have done it and he is SOOOOOO sorry.

I mean, the whole thing was both awful and hilarious.

From they’re going to eat the bird to I’m sorry, bird, within five seconds.

Anyway, as it’s Monday and that scene was the most exciting thing to happen today, it made me think about birds. I have a soft spot for animals in general, but a few in particular. Cats, including the big ones. Elephants. And birds.

It’s really not fair to classify such a diverse species as “birds” because think about it. An elephant is an elephant. You’ve got your flappy ears, you’ve got your trunk. You’ve got your gray, wrinkled hide.

But a flamingo, say, is quite a far bit different than a peacock, which is quite a far bit different than a canary or a turkey or a heron or a pelican.

Think about those for a second! It kind of blows your mind that some of these things even exist, let alone that they’re related.

At the Nashville zoo. Flamingos are only pink after they eat, but are naturally white.

I think part of my attraction to birds is this diversity. You can’t look at an ostrich and not be impressed. You can’t look at a robin and not think hooray, spring is here.

Another reason I love birds is their ubiquity. You can go pretty much anywhere and there will be a bird. You’re not going to get kangaroo or chinchilla wherever you go, but you can always spot a bird. If you’re on the ground, they’re on the ground. If you’re 30 stories up in a skyscraper, they’re 30 stories up in a skyscraper. If you’re in a forest, or on a city street, or looking out your window… bird.

They are the company you can count on to be there. No landscape is too bleak, no construction truck too loud to deter them.

Birds are quite a bit smarter than we give them credit for. Calling someone a birdbrain isn’t exactly a compliment to the human, but really it should be an insult to the bird.

For instance, did you know that ravens can talk? They can mimic human words and voices, and in the wild they can mimic other predators like wolves and foxes.

Edgar Allen Poe probably wasn’t kidding when he quoth the raven.

Chimps and apes get a lot of credit for being second only to humans in intelligence (though sometimes I’m not sure that’s as much of an accomplishment as we think it is, either) but did you know that crows are actually as intelligent as – if not more so – than primates?

They don’t have opposable thumbs but they can use tools, recognize human faces, solve problems, practice deception, and memorize your garbage pickup schedule better than you can.

A wild turkey that visited us in our condo in New Jersey. It flew to the top of the fence and hung out there for a while, seemingly in defiance of gravity.

One of the greatest outings as a kid was going to feed the ducks. My grandmother would give us a bag of stale bread and my grandfather would take us to the duck pond and we’d stand by the water and throw little pieces of bread and watch them dunk and grab and flutter and dive.

I always made it a point to throw an extra piece to whichever one brought up the rear, or to the one who always seemed to be out-maneuvered by the others.

I remember once as an adult, going down to the lake by our house and feeding the Canadian geese there. I’ll tell you what, a full-grown hungry goose honking at you because the other guy got the bread first is a beast to behold. You really don’t want to get on their bad side.

A couple of ducks at a lake in Smithville, New Jersey. They know where the eating’s good.

Also terrifying? Swans. Don’t let their little heart-shaped neck trick fool you. If they don’t get their share of dinner, you had better have your car keys in hand and be ready to book it back to safety. Those things are huge, like as tall as me huge. And they do not like to be left out.

I particularly love the baby geese in spring. Tiny fluffballs waddling in a line with one parent ahead and one behind. They quite literally stop traffic. Mom goose stands on one side and dad goose stands on the other and a line of baby geese trundles across a six lane highway while previously road-raged drivers stop to let them pass and go “awwwwww.”

Sometimes you think you’re being smart, and you inch forward a little at a time, trying to break through the line, but nope. They will continue their trek, arcing around your tires until they are good and crossed.

Some baby geese hanging out at the pond at the farm here.

Speaking of crossing, why did the goose cross the road?

I’ll let you percolate on that for a minute.

An ostrich’s eyeball is bigger than its brain. At top speed, they run just over 40 miles per hour, but they will never take flight. An ostrich egg is the largest in the world.

Another bird that cannot fly? Penguin. The tiniest one is a foot tall. The biggest is four feet tall.

A group of penguins on the water is called a raft, but a group of penguins on land is called a waddle. A group of crows, however, is called a murder. You can have a bevy of doves but only jays can party, band, and sometimes scold.

A group of swans is called, among other things, a lamentation, and those infamous geese are called a gaggle.

I love watching a whole flock take off at once.

Speaking of geese, have you figured out the answer to why it crossed the road?

Because it was the chicken’s day off.

Once, on a vacation in Florida, I fed seagulls French fries out of my hand. All you had to do was sit there and hold out a French fry and one of them would swoop in and pick it off. You didn’t even have to worry that they would take your finger with it. These things are precision eating machines.

When I tried that same trick on the boardwalk in New Jersey, I had to abandon my entire plate of fries when some seagull’s friends found out about it and decided that waiting to be fed by a middleman human was way too inefficient.

Hummingbirds can fly backwards. They are the only bird that can do this. Their eggs are the size of jellybeans.

A sparkling emerald and ruby hummingbird in Olema.

For the entirely of my life on the east coast, a cardinal sighting was a rare and cherished event. Once in a while we’d see one hop onto a tree branch outside the dining room window, and whoever spotted it would yell for everyone else to come and look and we’d stand there and oooh and ahhh until it flew off.

When I moved to Tennessee, I was walking along a wooded path behind a Five Guys (ie: not exactly the center of a natural wonderland) that opened up to a little grassy field. Sitting in the grass were dozens of cardinals. It was like Christmas and my birthday and the Fourth of July all at once, but sadly there was nobody to yell for to come and see, so I had to take a lot of pictures and then exclaim in great detail to my mother on the phone later.

Birds are nature’s vacuum cleaners. It may not be your favorite image, but think about it. Where does all that roadkill go?

In places where vultures are in danger, there is an actual roadkill problem.

Hanging out after a festival, waiting to pick off the scraps.

One summer we stayed in an Airbnb here before moving here. The house had a big porch and lots of shade trees. One morning we came out to find a baby bird on the ground. It had fallen out of a nest that was on top of one of the porch columns.

You have never seen two grown people spend so much time trying to jerry-rig something tall enough to climb on to reach that nest. We put books on top of chairs and I did a highwire act while Ralph held me up and I managed to slide this tiny, squalling thing back into its home.

Baby birds are shockingly loud.


Can you think of another animal that has birthed as many idioms as birds? You can be sick as a dog or have the memory of an elephant, but when it comes to birds you can be a sitting duck, a strange bird, two birds of a feather, as free as a bird, as crazy as a loon, or as happy as a lark.

You can have a bird’s eye view, which is a good thing, or pick some lottery numbers that are for the birds, which is not.

A bird in hand is worth two in a bush, and if you’re an early bird you’re bound to catch that worm.

Why didn’t the chicken cross the road?

I’ll give you a minute.

I cannot conclude a reflection on birds without mentioning one of my favorites, the humble pigeon. I think, in fact, that this particular bird deserves its own post sometime in the future.

Pigeons are maligned as being pests and for desecrating buildings and public statues, but they should really be applauded for their ability to adapt. Pigeons didn’t suddenly show up unannounced on our city streets. We brought them there, then complained when they stayed and made themselves at home.

Pigeons have long been invaluable wartime assets, carrying history-altering messages behind enemy lines when no other method of communication was possible.

You can pick up a pigeon, blindfold it, spin it around six times, turn it upside down, and transport it a thousand miles away from home and it will still find its way back.

Nobody knows how.

Considering I still have to use GPS to get to the grocery store, this is quite impressive.

Since they really deserve to be paid homage, I will save the best pigeon tales for another time.

Spotted along the Point Reyes seashore.

Until then, have you figured out why the chicken didn’t cross the road?

Because it was his day off.

Photo: a seagull enjoying a little crab dinner on the beach in Brigantine.