Friday, April 13, 2007

The Day of the Bird

Sadly, this isn’t one of those “Ah, Spring is here” stories that share with you the splendor of the rebirth of nature in this annual rite of the environment. It’s a lot more disappointing, but at the same time, very much part of nature.

Today, I had to stand there and watch a small bird die.

It started this morning, outside of dance class, where, on the sidewalk, lay a tiny dead bird. I wouldn’t have thought much about it, but Natalie and Matthew were both with me. Although I stood in front of it to block them from seeing it, Natalie’s very observant and pointed through my legs and asked, “Daddy, what’s that?” What could I say? I didn’t want to say, “It’s a dead bird, leave it alone,” so instead, I told her it was nothing. I felt bad about lying to Natalie, but I felt worse by leveling a bird’s life to that of nothing. After all, it was a life, but especially, because it was a baby bird, bald head, hardly any feathers, small wings. Probably fell from its nest in the middle of the night. Do mother birds look for lost little ones? I like to think so, but all she had to do was to look down.

Then we saw another one, same age, same fretful condition. I hurried the little ones past and into the dance studio. On our way out we took the long way to the truck.

A few days ago, a project Natalie did to celebrate the coming of Spring was to build a birdhouse. It was a creative affair: a paper drinking cup smeared in white frosting with birdseed stuck all over it. There was a string poking out of the top and so we hung it from my newly planted ficus tree (that’s been in a pot for the last six years).

Needless to say, she was very excited about seeing birds hanging on her paper cup covered in white frosting. Lately, we been visited by two little birds intent on crashing through the window in the living room. They sit on a potted palm tree and periodically jump at the glass. Maybe they’re seeing their reflection and thinking they’ve got a fight on their hands or maybe they don’t understand the glass barrier, but whatever it is, they hang on the screen and peek at the window. Natalie named them both “Natalie” and she’s always on the lookout for their mother.

This afternoon, we spent quite a deal of time in the backyard, playing in the sandbox and running around on the grass. The sky is littered with birds, and we sat on the patio and watched two of them swoop in on Elsa. Undoubtedly, they’re interested in her fur to line their nests with, but it still looked like an impressive David and Goliath dogfight that the birds were winning.

I’m always looking for ways to keep the birds off of the patio, as they perch on whatever’s available to wait until the coast is clear to scavenge from Elsa’s food bowl. She hates it and gets all in a tizzy if she catches one of them in the act. They always get away, but I hate it because they always poop right before they take off, so I’m constantly cleaning up bird poop. We bought a fake owl that they spotted immediately and are unaffected by it. I think they feel it keeps away the gullible birds. Gulls maybe? I haven’t seen any around, if that’s what you’re asking.

Today, I remembered a bird feeder that my brother Jason bought us a few years ago and we had it hanging at the old house, but haven’t yet put it up at this one. It sounded like a nice project for us this afternoon, so I dusted it off, unwrapped the bag of seed and we looked around for a place to put it. While we were doing so, Elsa was just being herself, running around the yard, chasing bees, and gnawing on an ant-covered leg bone of the ham we ate on Easter (she wouldn’t touch it for a week as it laid in the yard, but suddenly, after the ants began their ravaging, she became interested).

Natalie points to Elsa, “Daddy, what does Elsa have?” I look over and Elsa is standing over a very frightened and defensive bird. It was crouched on the ground with its wings extended and its beak at the ready. Drool drained from both sides of Elsa’s mouth. Yelling at Elsa to “Leave it!” didn’t do any good, and half way to the bird’s rescue, Elsa grabbed it and flung it into the air.

All the while, Natalie is asking, “What’s Elsa doing with that bird?” and Matthew’s making his way across the grass to the impending carnage. I told her to take her brother inside the house and that I’ll take care of the bird. Surprisingly, she did. Maybe she understood that it wasn’t a good thing that was happening or maybe she thought that somehow she was in danger. I assured her it was okay; meanwhile, Elsa had grabbed the bird again and I heard a small crack come from her mouth.

She dropped it on the patio and looked down her nose at it on the cement. It was still breathing, head drawn out on the ground. It’s legs slowly kicking and only one of its wings was waving in the air. I escorted Elsa into the house and she complained the whole way.

Back outside, I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought to get a BB gun and finish the job, and that would have been a lot easier than some of the gruesome alternatives I was thinking of. I got the shovel and stood over it for only a few minutes.

The legs quietly stopped moving. The black and white wing, sopping wet from Elsa’s saliva, came to rest over its body like a blanket. Up until then, the one eye I could see was wide and unblinking, black, staring up at me, the patio, the sky. I couldn’t tell. I hoped it wasn’t looking at me, but if it was, I was glad that it knew it wasn’t alone. Especially now. It’s body relaxed, sunk in on itself a little, and its eye first became a slit, blinked slowly a couple of times and then not at all. It was dead, and so I scooped it up with shovel to take care of it.

All the while, there were several disturbing reports from the birds as I could see a couple of them sitting in the trees watching me.

Natalie and Matthew (and the birddog Elsa) returned to play outside again, and as I passed out juice boxes for all, Natalie asked about the bird. “Where did the bird go?” she asked. I didn’t feel bad about lying to her this time.

“He flew away,” I told her.

“Why did he do that?” she asked. She’s forever asking questions, so I knew more was to come.

“Because he didn’t like being around Elsa.”


“Well, if Elsa bit you, would you want to be around her either?”

“Oh.” I love her “ohs,” those deep exclamations of understanding, even if she doesn’t.

A few minutes later, Natalie’s looking down at the grass when she says, “Daddy, the bird didn’t fly away.”


She points to something on the lawn. “The bird didn’t fly away.”

When I arrived to investigate there as another dead bird on the grass, a baby bird this time, one exactly like the first one only with less feathers and smaller wings. So, maybe the birds earlier weren’t going after Elsa’s fur but instead were attacking her for killing their young. I don’t know if birds do that, but it does make sense.

What to do about Natalie, though? “Is he going to fly away?” she asked. I couldn’t lie to her this time, as this particularly mangled bird couldn’t have been sleeping or resting or taking a break from flying… and there’s no way this little guy’s going to hop up and take to the skies. He was missing some important pieces in order to do that.

“I’m sorry Natalie. He’s dead.”

“Why is he dead?”

“Well, Elsa bit him and he died.” I shoveled him up and put him with the other one, shaking my head the whole time. The interesting part of this is that Natalie laughed when I told her. It wasn’t one of those malicious laughs of evil geniuses just before they blow up the world; it was more of a nervous laugh, as if she really didn’t know what to say or how to act… or what it really meant. I don’t think Natalie understands, and I didn’t know how to explain it to her. Perhaps she’s too young and laughing is her defense mechanism to keep from thinking too much about it. I’m sure she’ll talk to Kara about it later.

All I wanted to do was put up a bird feeder to watch the birds in our backyard, maybe a little educational experience for Natalie… I didn’t think she learn this much.

1 comment:

Ryan or Kara said...

I feel bad. I taught Elsa to chase the birds away. I was getting tired of cleaning the bird poop off of the toys. Poor birdie.


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