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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