On any given day, they congregate on light poles, on traffic-signal posts, and in parking lots. Especially grocery store parking lots. I don’t know how birds know where to assemble; I suppose they send each other tweets regarding various meetups around town. Regardless of where they land, they line up with precision, spaced apart at equal intervals. Do they use a spacing gesture, like high school dance teams use before performing halftime shows? Is one of them the team captain, screaming out, "Okay, birds, look alive! The traffic light's about to turn red and we got a fresh audience pulling up. Everyone, half a wingspan apart, now!"
If one of them accidentally gets too close to another, he adjusts himself, and it starts a domino effect. Birds shift positions all the way down the line, chirping, "He's touching me, scoot over, this is my space, move it or lose it," repeatedly. Meanwhile, we humans think they're singing, and we suddenly feel closer to nature and to God. But the angry birds are losing their serenity over a couple of millimeters between them.
When it’s time for maneuvers, they go en masse, hitting freshly washed cars with their excrement bombs. They especially enjoy surprise attacks on skin-melting hot days, when their toxic substance bakes onto windshields. And it’s usually Flash’s car they hit.
“Seriously? They never hit your van. It’s always my car,” he frequently whines.
“Flash, I doubt they’re targeting you, specifically.”
“Oh, really? I just saw one shine a laser beam onto my hood, before he fired.”
“Well, you are the one who took the bird feeder out of the yard.”
Everywhere we drive, birds are there, leisurely crossing the road as we careen towards them at 75 miles per hour. We risk life and limb swerving to miss them, but the ingrates are oblivious. One day, while my friend Vanessa and I were stopped at a red light, a huge bird came straight for the windshield, pulled up at the last minute, and nonchalantly strolled across the roof until we took off. They’re daredevils, always looking for a potentially deadly quick thrill. It all makes sense now – landing on electric wires, sitting on metal during lightning storms, flying over outdoor shooting ranges, swooping down on prowling cats. They're adrenaline junkies. It's Death Wish VI: Feathers Will Fly.
Except in my yard. At home, there’s not much bird drama. Or variety. All I get are black grackles. Don't be impressed; I only know their name because Mom told me. Prior to that, I called them “those big, black, mean-eyed birds.” All the colorful birds steer clear of my place. I want to see vibrant feathers in red, green, orange, yellow, purple, and blue. Instead, I have sinister birds of darkness. Before Flash dismantled the feeder, I put out bird-specific food, hoping to attract blue jays or cardinals or a little red-breasted robin. Which seems a little persnickety to me. I don’t have to get two different kinds of foods for my dogs. One dog is white, the other is brown, but they eat the same food. In spite of my bird-seed delicatessen, only grackles showed up. Maybe they killed the other birds. Once, a couple of cute sparrows crept into my yard, but they never returned. The grackles got to them.
Apparently, all the exciting birds live near water. So, unless we rent a backhoe to dig out our backyard and fill it with water, we’ll always have mediocre bird-watching at home. Our friends, the Bird Freak Family, own a lake house. Supposedly, they go to the lake to enjoy boating, skiing, fishing, and looking at the beautiful landscape. But the real reason they go is to identify as many birds as humanly possible. Anyone in their immediate family, and a few in their extended families, can spot 50 different kinds in 10 minutes. Me? When I’m visiting their lakeside paradise, I scan the trees and gaze into the heavens, desperately looking for the first bird they pointed out an hour prior. I don't have bird radar - birdar. But the Bird Freaks know birds by the sounds they make, the way they fly, and the number of feathers sticking up on their heads as they fly overhead at an elevation of 1500 feet. If just one grackle would fly by, I could impress my friends by identifying it, I think to myself. But, of course, all the grackles are at my house, waiting to taunt me.
"Ohhhhh," I said during one of our visits, hoping to be a part of their little club, "I used to hear this sound when I was growing up. What is this?" I then proceeded to imitate the noise.
"Mourning dove," the entire family said, in unison. Like it was the easiest answer on a quiz. Show-offs. "That wasn't a bad imitation," they added, out of pity. That was the end of my sharing any knowledge. Still, I wondered why they were called "morning" doves; I heard them at all times of the day. Being a person who catches on quickly, it was two months later when I thought perhaps the Freaks had said "mourning” dove. I googled; there it was, a grieving bird. Throughout my childhood, I saw black birds and heard mourning doves; that explains my cloudy moods as a teenager. Had I been surrounded by bright cheerful canaries, puberty would have flown by without a hitch.
The Bird Freaks own mega-powered binoculars for their bird-spying. Using them, I saw a freckle on a flea on a dog on a boat over a hole in the middle of the deep blue lake. Also, the 1,000,000 x magnification is great for Rear Window reenactments; I needed to see what all the lake neighbors were doing. The Freaks also use technology to identify bird calls. The highlight of their year, so far, was identifying a pileated woodpecker. When she heard an unusual bird sound, Mrs. Freak commented, "What's that sound? I've never heard that before. Wouldn't it be funny if that were a pileated woodpecker?"
That, dear reader, is a question I would never ask. For two reasons: 1. I never knew the word “pileated” existed, before last week, and 2. I wouldn’t know the voice of a woodpecker, pileated or a not, if it personally called me on my cell phone. I am a woman with untrained ears. Although, I do know a kukoburra when I hear one laugh. I can imitate him easily; it’s the same sound I make when Flash walks around the house wearing argyle socks with shorts.
But I have more bird sense than the Freaks’ friend Victoria. While watching ducks swim by, she asked, “Do they use their front legs or just their backs legs when they swim?” I’m also a tad more educated than Flash, who says he likes green-haired ducks. Ducks with hair. So, I hold the title as Third Most Bird-Ignorant Human on Earth.
Two weeks ago, Flash, Cowboy, and I were having breakfast at a restaurant in Galveston. After Cowboy loaded up his first plate with eggs, sausage, and potatoes, Flash carried it to our table outside, so Cowboy could fill a second plate with fruit. When we joined Flash, he told us, “A bird took Cowboy’s sausage.”
“What? How did that happen?”
“I was sitting right here. He swooped down and got it.” Nothing else was disturbed; the eggs and potatoes were intact.
“That was a huge sausage link, the size of bratwurst.”
“How could a seagull carry something that big in his beak?”
“He speared it, then took off.”
I heard chuckling behind Cowboy. There he was, the plump sausage-thief, waiting for his next big score. The waiter brought hungry Cowboy another plateful of food, untouched by beaks.
“Are seagulls like pigeons that live near the water?” I asked Flash.
“I don’t know. I mean, they’re both birds.”
“Yes, thank you for clarifying that, Mr. Ornithologist. Are pigeons and doves the same?”
“They’re flying rats.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s what people call pigeons and doves. Flying rats. Because they’re gross.”
“I’ve never heard anyone else say that. So, in the Bible, when a bird flew out of Noah’s ark and came back with an olive leaf, to show that dry land was near, that was a flying rat? That doesn’t sound very Biblical. And rats are of the devil.”
“I’m just saying.”
“So that thing that died in our attic last week, leaving the Stinkiest Rodent Carcass Ever, was merely a wingless dove?”
Flash glared with his beady, grackle-like eyes.
Fortunately, I need not be an expert to appreciate God’s creation. I like big birds, and I cannot lie. Pelicans, owls, cranes, and penguins intrigue me. And Cowboy shares my affinity for flamingos. When he was eight years old, I caught him with one leg over the fence surrounding the pink birds at the Houston zoo; he was ready to chase them. I taught him their stance, and he caught on quickly. I think he wanted to be one of them, hanging out by the water all day. I’d love to see all the brightly colored super-sized birds of the rainforest, but I will never go there to see them. Because everything there is super-sized: roaches, snakes, and spiders, as would be my curly hair.
So, an occasional visit to the Rainforest Pyramid at Moody Gardens will have to suffice. The last time we went, as we opened the door to enter, a heat wave sucked the oxygen out of my lungs. It was almost as stifling as downtown Houston in August. Quickly, I walked to the lower level, where it was cooler. There sat two large royal-blue birds, perched by the cool water; smart birds. Trying to get their attention, I clicked my tongue and did my best parrot imitation. I got nothing in return. After my jungle sounds, they looked in my direction. But still, no conversation. It doesn’t matter than physiologically, they do not speak. Every bird resembling a parrot should have something to say when I show up for a visit. But they never do. Rude.
Sigh. My attraction to birds is an unrequited love affair; they don’t know I exist. But I won’t give up. I’ll strive to distinguish the mockingbird’s call from a car alarm, and a mourning dove from a cheerful one. I’ll research. I’ll google recordings of their songs. Soon, I’ll grow accustomed to their faces, to the tunes they whistle night and noon. If I get to know them better, maybe they’ll notice me, and indulge me with occasional fly-bys. I think they sense my recent efforts. Two days ago, a non-grackle bird entered my front yard, landing on a piece of yard art. I was shocked, and took a photo to commemorate the event. He flew away and returned four times, showing signs of a possible commitment to me. So, I’m taking our relationship to the next level; I’m on my way to Walmart for bird seed. I’ll sprinkle it on the ground, until Flash puts up another feeder. I’ll glue a few feathers to my head, strut around the front yard, and cheep. Whatever it takes to make me more attractive to them. Who knows? Maybe, with a lot of hard work, I’ll attain Bird Freak status, too.