Birds (class Aves) are winged, bipedal, endothermic (warm-blooded), egg-laying, vertebrate animals. There are around 10,000 living species, making them the most varied of tetrapod vertebrates. They inhabit ecosystems across the globe, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Extant birds range in size from the 5 cm (2 in) Bee Hummingbird to the 2.75 m (9 ft) Ostrich. The fossil record indicates that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs during the Jurassic period, around 150–200 Ma (million years ago), and the earliest known bird is the Late Jurassic Archaeopteryx, c 150–145 Ma. Most paleontologists regard birds as the only clade of dinosaurs to have survived the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event approximately 65.5 Ma.
I was idling on East Lake Sammamish Parkway two weeks ago, of a morning, with the beautiful lake on my left. My windows were down, my moon roof was open and just ahead of me some gigantic piece of earth moving equipment was growling and twisting and turning and pawing at the ground. Stop-sign-bearing worker bees in yellow plastic hats warned me to halt. Summer in Seattle is a time of never-ending road construction. The constant piddly-pitter-patter of winter rains wears at the roads and summer is the best time to fix everything. And so I was stopped.
It was a nice cool northwest morning, and a Lois McMaster Bujold story was playing on my iPod. I enjoy, immensely, the dulcet tones of voice star Grover Gardner. No one can ever be Miles Vorkosigan but he.
I looked to my right, and on the sidewalk, a single industrious crow was worrying at some food. I looked closer and saw a spill of peanuts. The crow held a nut down with his foot and pecked, peck, peck, peck, until a chunk of goober pea broke away. Then it picked the piece up and lifting its bill, swallowed. Rinse and repeat.
I love the way crows sometimes hop, two-footed, up onto the curb, down into the gutter, somewhat reminiscent of Chinese hopping vampires. This particular crow hopped about and eventually consumed two or three peanuts. Then above me…I looked up through the open moon roof, above me was a second crow, perched on the power lines. It cawed and the one on the sidewalk flew away. I do not speak crow and so have no idea what had just happened.
Then crow secondo flew down and approached the peanuts. This guy was not so bright. First he tried to swallow an entire peanut in one gulp, choked, and coughed the nut back out onto the sidewalk. Nor was he a great learner. He went snatch, snatch, snatch, and gathered three peanuts into his bill and tried to fly away with them. But it was too many and they all fell out back to the sidewalk, where a third crow landed. I did not get to watch this one’s methods as traffic began to go forward, it was our time to creep past the earth machine, hoping it did not swallow us up or crush us.
Northwest Bald Eagle
Just after clearing the construction area there was a flash in the air in front of me and a bald eagle swooped over the road with a fish in its talons and landed in a tree. Ha, ha, what a sight. I do love to watch bald eagles. [Strange interlude: There are two subspecies of bald eagles—I just learned this from Edward O. Wilson’s splendid autobiography Naturalist–Haliaeetus leucocephalus is the southern and nominate subspecies, the bird chosen as our national symbol—but I was looking at Haliaeetus leucocephalus washingtoniensis which is the larger northern subspecies Thank you Doctor Wilson for taking time out from your ants to look upward.]
And thus we arrive at the point of this story, taking the round-about way as when I travel the road to work, winding along beautiful Lake Sammamish, always turning a short story into a long one…I love birds. Of all the animals creeping, crawling, slithering, flying…of all these creatures, I most love birds. Birds are beautiful. They are delicate. They are powerful, and fierce, and strong, and glorious. And smart. They are tool users—and, and, tool makers.
When I moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, one of the first things I did was put up two bird feeders in my backyard. I had begun watching birds whilst living in Texas and loved me some mockingbirds and cardinals and hated grackles with a passion. But I was not familiar with the birds of Wisconsin. Then one weekend afternoon I was sitting in my den. A blackish-white kind of bird fluttered down to the feeder suction-cupped to my window (the feeder, not the bird). This bird spread its wings to break its descent and I was treated to a glorious flash of red chest and inner wing. It was a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak. Wow, this cardinal’s cousin was a beauty. And, as with many birds, the male is the gaudy one—just showin’ off.
I love to watch birds walk, with different species having a different number of forward and back facing toes, they can walk in several ways. And those side-facing eyes are a marvel as well. When you think a bird is looking straight at you, it is not. When it cocks its head, one eye toward you, then turns that head so that the other eye takes a gander as well, then that is when you have attracted the attention of said avian.
Birds are smart. They are tool users. They are affectionate. They are social. I had a second-hand cockatiel for a number of years and I loved him dearly. He is my second favorite…I refuse to use the term “pet,” the animals in my life were my friends and my companions…anyway, only my beloved cocker spaniel, Pretty Maggie Money-Eyes was ever any dearer to me. And Maggie was really my daughter, not my dog, and I was her boy. But I digress…Terry the cockatiel was a friend. It took a while for us to get to know one another.
A co-worker kept saying “My damned bird won’t die!” Over and over I heard this until I said, “Okay, I’ll take him.” I did not even know what a cockatiel was. This one was well over ten years old and books said the average life span was five. What was I getting myself into? Was I adopting some geriatric sack of feathers? And I had a cat. What indeed was I doing? That first night I sat in the kitchen with Terry’s cage on the kitchen table. The door was open and he slowly emerged. I had bought some millet. I soon found out that millet was Terry’s catnip.
My Grand Shifu had taught me how to handle birds when we did a photo shoot for Internal Arts magazine with a dove. Ha, Shifu had worked as a stage magician in his youth. You extend your index finger, bump up against the bird’s chest, and he walks straight forward and climbs aboard. The night Terry flew over to my shoulder, walked up to the back of my head and began grooming me was a great delight. Goose bumps sprung up.
And losing Terry was a great sadness. I still dream about him, but he made it to 18, well beyond the average cockatiel lifespan. But I suspect this lifespan is so low because these parrots are cheap and owners have no respect and mistreat them.
Of course, being the reader that I am, I devoured every book on cockatiels (there were not many) and subscribed to Bird Talk magazine and came to love the entire parrot species… psittacines, and loved to visit pet shops and interact with the parrots or simply watch them…and I got to know the keeper of the bird house at the Fort Worth zoo, and she would let me hold one of the scarlet macaws on a stick, they were stick trained so someone could not just stroll up, proffer an arm and walk off with one.
African Grey Parrot
And I lusted after an African Grey parrot, but I was too broke, and they live so long…sigh, I read a story about a man who owned an Amazon. For thirty years the bird lived in a cage in the man’s den. Then the man died. When the house was sold and everything was being moved out, the movers picked up the bird cage and the Amazon began shouting “Help me, help me.”
The last I read, African Greys are rated with an IQ similar to that of a five-year-old human, and the emotional level of a two-year-old.
So, birds, I love them, and after living with one for so long I now look at them differently. And I enjoyed the hell out of watching the crows. Construction delays can be fun.
Oh! And I almost forgot. Like it says at the beginning, they used to be dinosaurs. Effing DINOSAURS! Is that cool, or is it coolest? I actually had a dinosaur for a roommate. Glorioski.
Hey, I also learned a new word. “Clade.” From Wikipedia: A clade is a group consisting of an organism and all its descendants. In the terms of biological systematics, a clade is a single “branch” on the “tree of life“. The idea that such a “natural group” of organisms should be grouped together and given a taxonomic name is central to biological classification. In cladistics (which takes its name from the term), clades are the only acceptable units.
David Quammen collected some of his science essays in a book entitled Natural Acts. A new edition is now available. Included is his essay “Has Success Spoiled the Crow,” on why crows get into so much trouble.