Five Facts About Birds

And what they tell me about the world.

I’m fortunate enough, during this crisis, to live on the top floor of an apartment building in Brooklyn with access to the roof. On a beautiful day like today I will set myself up here and work. At this moment, I see birds. I’m unsure what kind. I’d say they are a medium size and white with gray bellies. They move of one mind, bobbing and weaving on invisible currents, listing apart before snapping back into tight cohesion.

I wonder what first pressed the birds to take to the sky. In as much as we are all biological expressions of our ancestors’ most dogged dreams, the birds of today are too the resulting boon of an heirloom stubbornness. The prototypical birds must have spent many generations with their heads tilted upwards, thinking, “Well, I must get up there somehow.” 

They made it. The rest of us animals, aside from the bats and some insects, have not wrapped our heads around the miracle. We were born of the sea, and so it makes sense that many creatures would live there or, like the whales, briefly take stock of the land on four legs, decide it was much ado about nothing, and return to the waves. We who stayed on land, the immigrants, reflect our ancestral restlessness: we want and move, and want and move, want and move.

But none have embodied this agitation of the spirit so completely as the birds, who sing and fly and swoop and live their lives by a uniform indecisiveness; land, then sky, then land, then sky, then sometimes sea, then sky again. The “most bird” of the birds are harried, relentlessly kinetic, ornate things. They cock their heads, preen, take another look, bristle, and then scatter. 

It’s no wonder we humans have spent so much time making songs about their impossible bodies, emblazoning them on our flags, making statues of them and trying to copy them in our scientific and metaphysical ways. And I am no different. In these heavy weeks, I thought it prudent to turn my mind once again to birds, and to sing their song. Here are some facts about birds that I find beautiful and that have built their nests in my brain. 

Pigeons and Rock Doves

There is no real difference between a dove and a pigeon. The other name of the pigeon is the rock dove, because their first home was a steep cliff. Our cities and monuments aren’t so different at all from these rocks in their bird eyes, which discard our stone flourishes and ideas of architectural grandeur to reduce them to nooks and crannies. The only thing separating the dove from the pigeon is human perception and human language. “Dove” comes from a Germanic tradition, while “pigeon” comes from the French. Language dictates our reality anyway, so I wouldn’t say, necessarily, that the difference is “fake” so much as it’s our problem, not the pigeons’. 

Kiwis Are Bird Rats 

There were no rats on the island, and so the kiwi said, “I will do it.” The kiwi developed whiskers like a mammal. It took on a drab coloring and decided to remain on the ground. This is the steady song of the earth—where there is a seed, a specific beak will form to crack it. Where there is a tall tree with fruit, a neck will elongate to reach it. Where there is skin, a tooth will hone itself to pierce it. Even on an island, detached and isolated, there is a rat’s work to be done. There are only so many rhymes to be made.

The Pact Between Herons and Alligators

Where alligators and herons cohabitate in the everglades, they decide not to conduct the animal business of predator and prey. This is noteworthy, as a heron would make an exceptional treat for a hungry alligator. But bandits live here as well, raccoons and possums who would eat the heron’s eggs. So the heron builds its nest near the alligator, who acts as a bodyguard and dutifully eats the would-be thieves. But there is a price. The heron often gives birth to more chicks than can fit in one nest. And so the alligator waits below, her mouth open, waiting. 

The Tragedy of the Greater Honeyguide

The greater honeyguide is not a beautiful bird. In fact, it’s rather dull to our sensibilities. But it understands human greed: it was named for guiding people to bee colonies, and it will feed on the abandoned nests that lay ruined by human activity. More importantly, they are brood parasites. The mother lays individual eggs in the nests of strangers. Her children are born, blind and featherless, with a membranous hook on their beaks, perfect for killing its step-siblings. The hook quickly falls off as the baby grows. It’s unclear if they remember. They are nowhere near endangered. 

Chickens and the Roman Commander

During the first Punic War, in a naval battle between Carthage and Rome near modern day Sicily, the Roman fleet engaged in a sacred tradition: they divined the outcome of their military endeavor by observing the actions of the holy chickens they had brought on the ship.

In the early morning, a priest would offer them food. If the chickens ate eagerly, it was a good omen. If they refused to eat, it meant ill fortune. On this particular day, the chickens refused to eat. The commander, Publius Claudius Pulcher, commanded the priest to try again, and when the chickens still would not eat Pulcher declared, “Perhaps they are thirsty!” and tossed them overboard into the ocean.

The Carthaginians landed a humiliating defeat on the Romans in the ensuing engagement, their greatest victory of the war. Pulcher was charged with treason and exiled, narrowly escaping a death sentence for his actions. It would be seven years before Rome regained its strength at sea.

It might seem archaic to us now, the idea that one can tell the future by observing the actions of birds. But I’m not so different, here on the roof. 

Birds build their nests. They roll in the dirt, they hunt, and they sing, and they fly, and we observe. We trace their movements. Maybe we are right to think that the birds, whose movements do require some degree of surrender to things we can’t see, to the wind and its currents, might be more attune to the governing hymn of the planet. They too, after all, once walked on land. The difference is millions upon millions of years of staring at the sky. We are novices in this regard.