‘What’s the procedure,’ I said. ‘I suppose you lurk in a bush till a bird comes along, and then you out with the glasses and watch it?’
~ P.G. Wodehouse, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen
My father likes to fish. We used to drive into the Sierra and camp in rustic fashion at some mountain lake where Dad would spend all day fishing and my brother and I would join him for an hour or two before running off to explore the surrounding peaks. Very occasionally, it seemed to me, he caught something. I never had my father’s patience for fishing, though I admired it as a style of philosophy, which is roughly what he considered it to be. I take my kids bird watching instead. Like lake fishing, the activity can sound comical in bare descriptive terms, but the philosophy, I think, is equally admirable.
He understood the speech of birds
As well as they themselves do words
~ Samuel Butler, Hudibras
Christmas afternoon there were a half dozen crows in the sycamores behind the house croaking out satire at my son’s attempt to master the unicycle. Today, though cold, it could almost have been spring for all the birds we saw: a black phoebe, two robins, an Anna’s hummingbird. In the branches above the oleanders my daughter spotted what I think must have been a cooper’s hawk, or a sharp-shinned. I wish I’d had a better look at it with the binoculars before the crows chased it away.
A couple hours later my daughter asked me to tell her again about the bird that had landed on me when I was a boy. Had it pecked at my head? No, it had not. It had only landed there – a little songbird of some kind – and I’d felt its sharp little toes dancing across my scalp. My parents and grandparents saw it happen. No spirit descended, however. No words were uttered on my behalf from heaven. It was years before I could go outside again without a hat.
The son and wife are sick. While roasting a chicken for dinner we sat on the couch and watched an episode of David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds. This was the episode on mating rituals and practices, avian pornography. Thankfully, my daughter is too young, and my son too feverish, to ask any pertinent questions. Until today I never suspected the existence of Amazonian calfbirds and never imagined anything like their weird mating-season chorus a hundred feet up in the forest canopy.
In my high school German class I took the name Sigurd after Sigurd of the Volsungs. I’d read as a boy in our copy of The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends about how Sigurd had killed the dragon Fafnir and roasted his heart, and how, when he tasted the blood of the dragon for the first time, Sigurd immediately understood the language of birds (nuthatches in particular). This seemed to me more desirable than fluency in German.
I said it might have been spring for all the birds we saw today, but that’s not quite true. The mourning dove was missing. Sibley and Peterson will tell you that the mourning dove is resident year-round in coastal northern California, but good luck spotting one in winter. By holding my hands together just so and blowing into them with a faint trill I can pretty well mimic a mourning dove’s call. I impressed my son this past summer by carrying on a ten minute conversation with one of the locals, but I couldn’t tell you what we said to each other.