I am thinking about birds a lot. I come from a “bird family.” While my mother has owned fish, mice, hamsters, a goat, turtles and dogs—for many years her best friend was a German Shepherd with a butt ulcer—truly, at heart, she is a bird person. Bird watching is a hobby, and a hobby can be adopted and then cast off—but bird people are always bird people even when they are birdless.
I grew up with birds, caged Love Birds and Diamond Doves and Parakeets, and I also grew up with stories of the unlikely pet birds my family owned previously. When she was a teen, mom found a sparrow with a broken wing. She named it Archie, and it slept in the corner of her bed. One night she rolled over and crushed it in her sleep. When I was only a baby, and we lived in a trailer in Laredo, TX, she owned a rooster, which slept on top of the refrigerator and loved to cuddle. Later, our family lived in a refurbished school bus, hopping campsites up the east coast, making cash at flea markets. During this time, my oldest sister Lisa found a lumpy-looking baby mockingbird at a campsite—it had fallen out of the nest and couldn’t fly. She named him Spaz and raised him on the bus. Eventually Spaz began to flap around, trying to fly. So at the next camping ground, when they saw a group of mockingbirds in a tree, they flung open the door and let Spaz go. Fly little bird, fly! Spaz bravely flew out, but the mockingbirds chased him back in. The next day, they tried again. This time, when Spaz flapped out of the bus and into their tree, the mockingbirds dive-bombed him and pecked him to death. (There is a myth that birds can smell human scent on their kind—in truth, birds generally have a weak sense of smell. But mockingbirds are protective creatures, and especially aggressive with other bird species. It’s likely that they simply registered Spaz as an intruder, a trespasser.)
As a child, my mother counseled me that we should live like the birds. Mathews 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” I think about this verse weekly, if not daily, not because I am a bird person or even a Christian, but because I am confounded by the concept.
For instance. On the African savanna, red-beaked Oxpeckers hang out on the backs of rhinos and eat the ticks that burrow into their hides; once considered a mutual symbiotic relationship, Oxpeckers are actually parasites, picking off only the ticks already engorged with blood and causing fresh bleeding and irritation. They feed not only on ticks, but on rhino’s blood. And Oxpeckers are not the only parasitic birds in the animal kingdom. Brood parasitism runs rampant among fowl—1 percent of all bird species and around 40 percent of cuckoo species leave their eggs for other birds to raise. The English language memorializes the cuckoo’s trickery in the word cuckold, sometimes shortened to cuck: a man whose wife is sexually unfaithful. Other cuckolding birds: cowbirds, black-headed ducks, indigobirds. Many brood parasites produce eggs that look like their hosts. Some avian parasites have evolved to mimic common harmless birds to further deceive their hosts: one study, conducted in the Choma District of southern Zambia, found that female cuckoo finches mimic the abundant Southern Red Bishops to fool their hosts, the Tawny-Flanked Prinia. At least in the case of Brown-Headed Cowbirds, all of this trickery has perhaps evolutionarily gifted female brood parasites with a bigger hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and retention.
The victims of brood parasites fight back, though, fueling what Wired writer Mary Bates refers to as an “evolutionary arms race.” Many bird species can spot forged eggs that differ only by a handful of spots. Fairy-Wren females teach their true genetic offlings a special “incubation call” so that they can detect foreign chicks. Reed Warblers use a kind of “neighborhood watch” to decide whether an odd-looking egg might be worth ditching. Southern Masked Weavers build nests with entrances specially geared to deter or trap parasitic birds. Some Yellow Warblers have found a gruesome solution to parasitic Brown-Headed Cowbirds: if they find a foreign egg in their brood, they entomb the entire nest, killing their rightful chicks as well. And they will repeat this cycle too, returning only days later to nest on layered egg graves.
This is all to say, that while birds don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, they go to great lengths to survive, even beyond parasite-host wars. Blue-jays imitate the far more dangerous Red-Tailed Hawk. Scientists in Hungary found that, without an alternative food source, Chickadees—colorful and tiny songbirds—will hunt and kill hibernating bats. Gulls will attack and bite off chunks of live whales. What should we see when we “look at the birds of the air”? What does it mean to live like the birds? In order to look more like his beloved parrots, a man from Bristol England had his ears sliced off, his tongue split, and colorful feather-like designs tattooed across his cheeks. Is there an inverse to anthropomorphizing? An effort to capsize humanity into an abridged and innocent version of another animal’s nature? Sometimes I wonder if I see the birds at all.
Heather Wilson is a research communications specialist who currently lives in Carrboro, North Carolina. She studied English and creative writing at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill where she was the Thomas Wolfe Scholar. Her work has appeared in Off Assignment and Full Grown Adults. She is currently working on a novel about a dysfunctional trio of siblings and their investigation into a religious movement built around artificial intelligence. She also runs Buffle, a literary and visual arts newsletter.
featured photo by Heather Wilson