Tag Archives: Birds

Loss and Raptors

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

Your father dies unexpectedly. You wrestle your grief by training a goshawk, a temperamental, bloodthirsty, half-mad sort of bird. It’s natural enough – inevitable, almost – if you’re Helen Macdonald. It’s inevitable, too, that you’ll spend half the book you’re writing about it trying to explain your fascination with T.H. White’s troubling, unintentional masterpiece – The Goshawk – about failing utterly to train the same sort of bird. Sharing Macdonald’s interests in raptors and in White, I waited impatiently for H is for Hawk to arrive in the States. The British reviews were so gushing it was embarrassing to read them. I special ordered the book from a distributor who, by an oversight, had no hold placed on the title, and so I received my copy a few weeks before its official American publication date. It mostly lives up to the hype, though I do have a few complaints. For one, Macdonald is overfond of the word “indeed.” And two or three chapters might have been excised entirely. Macdonald makes awkward transitions sometimes from the choppy, poetic, descriptive language that shows her at her best to a slangish informality (“And I was all, bloody hell…”) that rings comparatively hollow. Her anguished emoting at the loss of her father was sometimes hard for me to slog through, but there really is an alchemy to her book. As you read it the image of Macdonald herself and of Mabel (the goshawk) blur and overlap in surprising ways, ways that alternately challenge and invite sympathy. When she’s writing from her eye (i.e., from a point of observation, either of Mabel or herself or White) rather than from her heart, Macdonald is compelling and you won’t want to put the book down. Her engagement with White and the strange appeal of his book is also well done and makes an excellent counterpoint throughout.

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Ethnic Cleansing and Lawn Inspection

I was given a new cubicle at the office, where I’m spending too much time these days. It’s on the ground floor and has a large window looking out at a patch of shrubs and lawn planted with Japanese maples and a young magnolia. I see a lot of birds from this window and note them down in a digest which I email to myself at the end of each week. The most frequent visitors are the crows, a mockingbird, two Oregon juncos, and a black phoebe. Less frequent are the hummingbirds, scrub jays, western bluebirds, bushtits, pewees and what I think is a Bewick’s wren.

It must be a Bewick’s wren because of its prominent white eyebrows. It’s a small bird. Named for the engraver Thomas Bewick, the male has a lovely song which it learns not from its father but from listening to neighboring males. Humans and wrens resemble each other in this. Certain things about manhood we’re just not willing to learn from our own fathers. The Bewick’s wren is common here in the western U.S. but has almost disappeared from the east coast where the house wren has waged a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing, destroying the eggs of the Bewick’s wren in order to expand its own territory.

Crows have an aversion to businessmen and will avoid office parks during standard working hours. Four (always four) of them will hunt through the grass here before 9am. After 5pm a larger group of between two and three dozen arrives. They come in like a comic troop of lawn inspectors and spread out evenly to conduct their review. Slow steps are taken, heads are tilted to judge the trim of the grass, margins are scrutinized, and loose bits of sod are pulled at with apparent dissatisfaction. Finally one of the senior inspectors caws out a score (passing or failing, I don’t’ know), and they’re off to the next patch of green.

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Phoebe Furbright, Ornithologist

My seven-year-old daughter recently asked me to write her a story, the only stipulation being that it should involve cats. Cats mean a lot to her. I’ve already mentioned her hand-made field guide to cats in the neighborhood, with illustrations, written descriptions, and names that she’s assigned to each.

One day last week she was struggling on her roller skates. Her brother gave her some grief about it and she began to cry. Curiously, while crying, her skating technique improved. When she stopped crying I pointed this out and told her she ought to think of something sad again. “Think of baby kittens,” I said, “with tears running down their cheeks.”

This is how fathers come to be despised by their children. After twenty seconds of shocked silence, the proverbial floodgates opened and she was bawling so hard she could barely stand, much less skate. I assured her that cats don’t really cry the way people do. “It’s just so sad!” she said. “The poor kittens!”

I’m trying now to repair this trauma by writing the requested story, which is quickly turning into a chapter book. My heroine, Phoebe Furbright, is a young cat with a socially unacceptable career goal: to become an ornithologist. Her father, despite the fact that he works in an office and has never so much as scratched a bird in his life, believes her aspirations contrary to cat nature. Birds, he says, are not for studying, but for stalking and killing!

And so on. This is fun writing. After recently finishing my novel and getting no response from the agents I’ve queried so far, I was feeling down and wondering if fiction just wasn’t my bag. In fact, I don’t read much fiction these days, which is perhaps awkward for an aspiring novelist.

If I had my education to do all over again, I suppose I would study biology in college rather than English and philosophy. Then I would do a graduate degree in ornithology, with the goal of working, say, for the National Park Service. Add books, of course, and I think it would be a fine life.

My daughter is discovering an interest in birds. For years now my son has wanted to be a herpetologist, in order to study venomous snakes and Galapagos tortoises – and he’d convinced his sister that she should do the same. But she recently had a close encounter with a hawk that’s made her reconsider. I wasn’t there when she saw it, but she wrote me the following report:

“We saw a hawk right up close and I walked under it and it looked straight down at me. After a while it flew away. Things I noted about the hawk: A white speckled front coat. Big yellow eyes. Long brownish red wings. A curved yellow beak!”

Patrick Kurp recently directed his readers to a Theodore Dalrymple essay about owls – or, rather, about a book about owls. Dalrymple writes that prior to reading this book he had forgotten that owl pellets were produced by regurgitation. He describes memories of dissecting owl pellets in school. I seem to have the same memories, though I can’t place the year or classroom in which this might have occurred. Perhaps I was at camp.

Dalrymple writes that a pair of tawny owls like to vociferate on summer nights from a tree near his home in France. “I never tire of listening to them,” he says. “I also never see them, and so their lives are a closed book to me.” Personally, I can’t imagine hearing owls nearby and not immediately running out to locate their nest and get a look at them.

A short walk from where my parents live there’s a nest of great horned owls. My father, anyway, claims to have seen two of them. Whenever I visit there’s only one. It likes to sit in the crook of a branch about thirty feet up, just below the nest. We spy on it awhile with our binoculars, and the owl watches us too. Then I hunt up owl pellets in the grass below to see what it’s been eating.

I’m curently reading Washington Irving’s A History of New York, a book which a month ago I didn’t know existed, but which I’ll never again be able to live without. It’s the best, funniest thing I’ve read all year, downright Shandean, and I’ll be recommending it to all my friends. Irving does, however, rather unfairly (I think) malign owls.

“There are two opposite ways by which some men get into notice,” Irving reports, “one by talking a vast deal and thinking a little, and the other by holding their tongues and not thinking at all. By the first, many a vapouring, superficial pretender acquires the reputation of a man of quick parts – by the other many a vacant dunderpate, like the owl, the stupidest of birds, comes to be complimented, by a discerning world, with all the attributes of wisdom.”

I don’t expect this is very fair to owls, but it’s certainly possible (for all I know) that they are relative dunderpates when compared, say, to corvids. It’s a question, perhaps, for Phoebe Furbright to look into.

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“The pigeons, of course, never suspected what they were eating.”

Feeding the birds. Boston, 1915.

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Three Paragraphs of Bug Hunters


It’s the rainy season in northern California but we haven’t seen a drop since November. The nights are cold with occasional frost. The days are bright and warmer than they ought to be. This is the season, most years, when we guiltlessly spend our weekends indoors with books and board games. Instead we’re obliged to be outside. Saturday we hiked to a little farm in the hills and along the way found a spotted towhee hunting through the underbrush.

In the first chapter of The Peregrine, J.A. Baker recommends discarding any simple notions that would make small colorful birds mere accessories of the landscape. “Consider the cold-eyed thrush,” he writes, “that springy carnivore of lawns, worm stabber, basher to death of snails.” If we have nothing to fear in him, it’s only an accident of scale.

Our most common thrush is the American robin. One evening last week my daughter and I saw fifty of them in the greenbelt behind the house, that apparently inexhaustible nursery of insects and worms. They marched in alert formation, evenly spaced, eastward through the grass. What must the plodding beetle feel to look up into the bright red eye of the towhee or the robin’s depthless black?

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Dragon’s Blood

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.

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Marginalia, no.212

Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson, An Apology for Idlers

A trick of alliteration will prevent forgetting: if the bark comes off in puzzle pieces, it’s a ponderosa pine. We camped all week in a grove of ponderosas and incense cedars, and when it wasn’t trees and mountains that distracted, it was birds: ravens, Steller’s jays, red-breasted sapsuckers, western tanagers, and black-headed grosbeaks. I’d spent an hour worrying which books to bring and settled on a Wodehouse collection, some Flann O’Brien, and Tove Jansson’s Moominsummer Madness for the kids. The Jansson we serialized at bedtime, but I only managed half a Wodehouse story and a mere two paragraphs of O’Brien. No complaints, however. The best holidays are perfect failures.

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My Life as a Bird

I recently received several letters from the dead. I had gone to see my parents for the day, a glorious drive across the Golden Gate into wine country where sunlit almond orchards shimmered pink under snowy mountains. While there, my mother gave me a “baby book” she’d kept when I was an infant. Tucked inside were a handful of letters written to me – between birth and my first anniversary – by various grandparents, an uncle (the only writer still alive), and my great-grandmother.

In a typewritten two-pager dated October 11, 1973, my paternal grandfather introduces himself:

Here you are, 3 weeks old, and I haven’t even written to you yet! Don’t understand this to mean that your grandfather isn’t proud of you, or that he doesn’t love you very much – just say that I am a lousy letter writer and a little on the lazy side.

There’s another from him written a year later that includes his reflections on Watergate – an interesting coincidence since my wife and I only watched Frost/Nixon last week. Later in life, this particular grandfather, an old Iowa farm boy, would write an unpublished autobiography full of corncrib wisdom, charmingly titled I Was Here, World – Did You Notice?

In another letter from October ’73, my maternal grandmother is admiring a photograph of me that she has just received. “You’re a little puffy around the eyes,” she says, “but being born isn’t easy.” Considering myself in the mirror this morning I have to admit that I’m still a little puffy around the eyes. Being thirty-seven isn’t easy either. (I know, I know, this can hardly be interesting to anyone else, but bear with me…)

The letter from my still-very-much-living uncle, includes a brief disclaimer about this whole business of life that I’ve just been launched upon, and a heads-up about certain kinds of people I’m bound to run into sooner or later:

Lots of people now-a-days are really cynical and say they would never want a child of theirs to be born in such a world, a world of war, hate, greed, envy, hostility, sickness, pollution, etc. But [Ian], those are like dead people, they can’t find the happiness in life and so they think there is none.

Finally, inside a white envelope stamped with an 8-cent Dwight Eisenhower, there’s a card from my great-grandmother, Mary Irene. It’s decorated with a pencil sketch of a mother bird flapping excitedly over her nestlings. (A printed note on the back says it was drawn by a female polio victim who held the pencil in her teeth and spent two months on the picture).  “Dear Wee [Ian],” Nanny writes:

Welcome to this world. It isn’t always an easy world. It is confusing and sometimes hurtful but there is joy and happiness to be found here, and may you find it in all fullness. May you, in good health, grow strong and sturdy, remembering always that you are God’s gift to us and that life is God’s gift to you. Use it well.

I don’t suppose very many letters are written to persons so patently unable to read or appreciate them as I was when these were put in the mail. But I was the premiere member of my generation on both sides of the family, and born at the far end of the country (my parents were in college), which probably accounts for it. Coming into possession of these letters now and reading them for the first time, I get a hot fluttering in my throat, a blush of omphaloskeptic vertigo. Too crisp glimpses of the past can make the present look blurry and precarious.

Use it well. I was just reminding a friend the other day how in our twenties we still talked in terms of what we were “going to do” with our lives. Whatever that was fated to be for each of us, we’re doing it now. Perhaps that’s why so many of our acquaintances, now that we’re in our late thirties and early forties, suddenly throw everything into the air and start over, no matter how recklessly. They panic, I think, at the sense of creeping irrevocability – Death, perhaps, by another name. I feel that panic too sometimes. To judge by every Woody Allen movie I’ve ever seen, it’s not going away anytime soon.

In an early chapter of Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov describes a visit to his St Petersburg home by General Alexei Kuropatkin, a friend of his father. Sitting on a couch, the general tries to impress young Nabokov by laying out matches in overlapping patterns that mimic stormy seascapes. Someone enters the room and the general stands: the matches scatter on the floor. Years later in the Crimea during the Russian Civil War, Nabokov watches a tramp with matted hair and beard approach his father to ask for a light. Nabokov senior pulls some matches from his pocket. There’s a moment of startled recognition: the tramp is General Kuropatkin, in hiding. But it’s not so much the fate of Kuropatkin that interests Nabokov as the symbolic continuity of the matches:

The following of such thematic designs through one’s life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.

A strange bit of literary advice, but I was reminded of it yesterday morning when I found myself dressed for work in black woolen pants, a black sweater, black shirt, black socks, black boots and a black pea coat. In fact, two ideas suggested themselves. First, I realized that I was dressed for a funeral (I saw the faces of the deceased relatives whose letters I’d just received, and then myself in a coffin). Second, it occurred to me that my dress approximated the ravens I’d seen the day before. Walking with my son through the outdoor farmers’ market we’d heard their froggy croaking and found them hurriedly building a nest of foot-long twigs above someone’s third-floor bedroom window. They were twice as big as our regular crows, a mating pair, with ruffled chests, Roman noses, and wide purple-black wings.

Nabokov has his matches, and of course his butterflies. Here, perhaps, is my symbolic continuity: “Bird” was among the first words I ever spoke; like a saddled cowboy I used to ride the back of a giant cast-iron rooster in the garden; later, a songbird landed on my head and frightened me so much that for years I wouldn’t leave home without a hat; a favorite story from my father’s boyhood involved an aggressive pet goose named Big Chief Harvest Moon; then, of course, my maternal grandmother was always collecting owls – owl-shaped salt and pepper shakers, figurines, music boxes, etc. ; and of course there were the birds I had shot with my BB-gun when we lived in the country, blackbirds and sparrows mostly, whose feet I collected in a painted wooden box; and don’t I still take my children bird-watching at the shore and in the hills? and don’t I look anxiously for each year’s first hummingbird, first robin, first mourning dove?

And now here are these letters by slow post from my personal antiquity, one from a beloved great-grandmother with a curious drawing of a mother bird and her hatchlings on it. And here is this pair of squawking bully ravens and their ill-chosen nesting site, toiling with mere sticks to make a space in the world for their helpless little ones. And here am I, the little bird grown, rushing off on a frosty morning with my own son underwing to drop him at school.

I occupy three places at once, my image repeated as in a collapsible telescope: I am the long-awaited, the fresh from the egg, the mother hovering over her nest. My son is myself and I am my father. I will become my grandparents, and my great-grandparents too. Line up the symbols and scan for syntax – but what does it add up to? What does it mean? I’m not sufficiently perceptive (or schizophrenic) to read it. I can only smile at the correspondence and recall a favorite passage from Saul Bellow’s Herzog:

But he had not forgotten the odor of his mother’s saliva on the handkerchief… All children have cheeks and all mothers spittle to wipe them tenderly. These things either matter or they do not matter. It depends upon the universe, what it is.

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Three Paragraphs of Nature

Bridge over the Marsh

There is an invisible boundary midway between Shoreline Park and the open tidal flats of San Francisco Bay beyond which the world belongs entirely to winged things: gulls and terns, innumerable songbirds, snoozing ducks and colonies of croaking pelicans, herons and egrets that stilt-walk through the grass and curl their necks into figure eights when they fly, and the large solitary raven that plucks mollusks from the oozing mud and breaks them on the rocks.  There are insects too: ladybugs and drab buzzing beetles, honeybees and bumblebees, and the broad black and yellow and small white butterflies that flit like fairies through the mustard flowers and the cowbane on either side of the path.

I spent my lunch hour today hiking down the levies that escort Stevens Creek and Whisman Slough into the Bay.  It’s a gravel trail on top that drops on the right into cattails and tidal ponds and on the left into lush sloping lawns that verge the creek, thick with marsh grass and hardy low shrubs, where ground squirrels scamper and jackrabbits hop incautiously from flower to flower.  At low tide the place has a rich sour odor of sweating mud and rotting vegetable matter.  A mile and a half out the fresh water from Stevens Creek ceases to flow eastward as it had all the way from the Santa Cruz Mountains and the saltwater from the Bay begins to push back up the half-empty channel.

Set here and there in the ponds are false islands, hunters’ blinds of sun-bleached wooden planking gapped like teeth when the gums have receded to allow for the barrels of shotguns in season.  There are metal towers for power lines, too, which seem oddly out of place, and the hum of electricity running through the cables is audible at a distance.  The path dead-ends at the open tidal flats, a vast killing field of saline mud where gulls in their thousands hunt the puddles for stranded fish, and clams and mussels poke up from the silt like paving tiles.  A bubbly, sucking sound of water leeching from the exposed earth in every direction makes a chorus to beg back the tide, which is on its way anyhow.  Meanwhile the circling raven eyes me curiously.

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Marginalia, no.57

Desire to be a bird, desire to become a bee.  Man feels that his happiness is in the air.  – And if we wish to become a bird, it is not an eagle, a vulture, a pheasant, a partridge, or a parrot that we wish to become, but a modest little bird gifted with amiability, a warbler, a titmouse, a robin, a nightingale, an average and innocent bird.

~ Joseph Joubert

I lack the confidence to fly in my dreams – not like a proper bird anyway.  As a child I dreamt that if I wiggled my fingers in a ridiculous sort of way I could incrementally propel myself into the far corners of the living room’s vaulted ceiling.  Nowadays, I dream that with a good running start I can jump indefinite distances, holding myself six inches above the ground by sheer force of will for as long as I like.  I would much rather dream myself into ‘an average and innocent bird.’  But like a fever or a plagued conscience, gravity imposes itself even on my sleep.  Birds are magical because they are immune.

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