Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Aviary

I spent this morning studying for my final Chemistry exam and doing a few barn chores, which consisted of turning Shorty and Mack out of the pen, hanging their blankets up, emptying the waterers, mucking several of the stalls (frozen horse turds....lovely), and sweeping the aisle (one way to get warmed up in a hurry, let me tell you). In the midst of all this work, I heard a thump and looked up to see that a sparrow, frightened from its freeloading meal of grain by my presence, had flown into a window in its effort to escape. It was unharmed but panicky, and as I approached it beat its wings frantically against the glass as though its desperation would be enough to cause a gap to open. I felt sorry for the poor thing, and figured it would end up hurting itself in its vain attempts at flight, so without thinking I cupped my hand over it and picked it up. It struggled in my grasp, and before I could closely examine my catch it took off with a massive effort and sailed out the wide open door.

I never pay much attention to the birds that surround me, other than the occasional fond smile or furtive glance about when I hear a particularly exuberant song. Yet they're everywhere. As I took a wheelbarrow outside to dump its contents in the manure pile, there were several meadowlarks sitting on the frosted ground, eyeing me disinterestedly. Coming inside to eat breakfast, I noticed a handful of goldfinches fighting over the contents of the feeder. A nuthatch later joined them--an uncommon visitor. As I started down the drive on my way to school, the two redtailed hawks that frequent the pasture rose from their perch on the telephone pole and circled elaborately before re-alighting.

I took the long way to school to avoid the steep hills, and even then I traveled slowly down the winding country roads, fearing that there might be lingering ice. As I rounded a curve, I looked out over the Pomme de Terre river, curious as to how it would appear in this wintry weather. The edges of creek were iced over, while a gentle current ran easily down the middle. Directly in the center of this action, a grey heron strode through the water, slowly and confidently. I was impressed by this scene, and as there was no traffic and no real rush, I stopped my car to get a better look. The heron, annoyed, took flight and moved a hundred feet down the bank. His vacancy was soon filled by a pair of Mallards--a duck and a brilliant green-headed drake, who paddled happily against the current. Wild ducks always amuse me, because I rarely see them, and when I do, they are usually flying far overhead, wings beating in comical speed. The sight of this pair was a real treat.

Continuing on my drive, I passed an uncharacteristically large flock of finches, followed by a lone mockingbird. The mockingbirds are my favorite of all the avian residents out here. They are beautiful in their simplicity and elegant in their flight. Something about their fanning tail feathers and the broad white bars on their wings meets my aesthetic approval. I've only heard the mockingbird's song twice, and both times I have been compelled to stop everything else I was doing and just listen. The birds imitate everything they have heard, after adding their own spin on things. One of them perched atop a tree, cocky as could be, and repeated the borrowed songs of the cardinal, the meadowlark, the robin, and (much to my delight) the eerie screech of a hawk. I was disappointed when he finally flew away.

(I almost hit a mockingbird with my car once. The irony was not lost on me. Had I actually killed a mockingbird, I would have felt so terrible that I would have practically been compelled to wear it around my neck in shame, like an old sailor and his Albatross.)

It was a strange day for birds. Even after I finished my final, walking to my parking place I noticed a dead pigeon lying on its back. It was a large bird, and its wings were spread around it, skin decaying and the quill of the feathers exposed. Its head was twisted at an impossible angle and laying down on its fat breast, somehow completely bald, and with the eyes missing. Altogether, it was rather revolting, if a bit sad.

And even then it was not over. I met up with my parents and we drove to Pet Warehouse to pick up some presents for the bloodhound's first anniversary. While they shopped for treats and toys, I headed over to the birdcages. I'm always depressed by these poor animals crowded (or even worse, left in solitary) into small cages, their wings clipped but their nails allowed to grow far too long. I admired the sun conures ("We are on sale! Was $549, now $449!" the sign read), the parakeets, the lovebirds, the cockatiels, and the ever-nervous finches, then I moved on to the big parrots. I can hardly stand to think about these intelligent creatures, locked behind these infernal bars, blinded by the glaring fluorescent lights, constantly harassed by well-meaning folks such as myself who ask them over and over again if they are pretty birds and whether or not they want crackers. What an existence. I showed my keys to the African Grey, and he was most amused. A large orange bird was quite pleased when I accepted the offer of his claws, and he shook my hand repeatedly like a trained dog. The cockatoo wanted nothing more than to be petted (this sweet disposition seems to be a hallmark of the breed), and I rubbed her head, exposing the delicate peach underside of the feathers as her gray-blue eyes rolled back in satisfaction.

When I got home, I looked at my own two zebra finches, Sparra and Presto. They must be getting old by now, and I don't know what I'll do when one dies. They're social animals, and to keep one alone would be cruelty, but I don't want to bring in another young bird and commit myself to another eight years of care and continue the vicious cycle. The truth is I'm tired of them. They aren't even the least bit tame, and I've owned them for years. They're worthless as far as pets go--very stupid, and capable only of looking pretty and singing sweet songs. Oh well....

Enough musings for a while. It was just a nice experience for once to open my eyes and look around today.

(pictured: bluebirds that nested in one of our birdhouses this summer)

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