Saturday, September 08, 2007
Memories of birds I've known
In my last post, I talked about the hunting craze in Pennsylvania, and it reminded me of my childhood hunting trips with my father -- and an incident that ended those hunting trips.
When I was little, my father used to go hunting a lot for whitewings--a particular kind of dove common in South Texas during certain parts of the year. (In my memory, it looks a lot like a mourning dove, but I think it was some related species.) Because my dad worked A LOT, my sister Mary and I used to go on these dove-hunting trips with him so that we could spend time with him and so we could go out to "the country" and drink sodas and eat chips and sandwiches. I thought it was the height of "roughing it," you know?
Our job on these hunting trips was to collect the just-shot birds and pull the feathers off them. My dad would do the yanking off of the head, gutting, etc. because Mary and I were grossed out by that. We really enjoyed these trips and "peeling" (defeathering, don't know who came up with that term) the birds, playing with the feathers and stuff.
One time, we went hunting behind our grandpa's house, just out in the vast sorghum fields outside Donna, Texas. My dad shot a bird, and when we went out to gather its little corpse, we found it wasn't yet dead. This had never happened to us before; the birds before had always been dutiful in their deadness and thus I usually didn't feel anything about picking them up, peeling them, and so forth. This guy was fluttering his wings, making little sputtering sounds, and pretty much freaking the crap out of Mary and me.
We then went into EMT mode, laying him on his back, pumping his little bird chest with a fingertip, blowing on his face, trying to find and perhaps extract the fatal shot. In retrospect, we probably hastened the bird's passing, which is a good thing. Despite our efforts, of course, the life slowly ebbed from his body and he stopped moving, but not before significant crying and hullaballoo ensued.
I never went dove-hunting after that.
When I was younger, I really didn't think too much about wild animals and the pain we humans inflicted on them. There are pictures in the family photo albums of my siblings and I next to dead deer and dead fish, all of us just smiling for the camera and happy to be near my dad when he was in such a good mood. He wasn't at work, and he'd just engaged in a sport he enjoyed. We'd watch him gut deer or fish or doves, and other than thinking "gross!" at all the blood, I just don't remember feeling anything for the lives of the animals. I still went fishing a lot, and even as an adult, I used to love being out there on a lake or near the ocean, feeling the little tugging of another life at the end of that line. (I was strictly catch-and-release; I didn't want to have to clean the fish.)
I don't really remember when my feelings changed, except that they did. My love for farm animals, birds, wild beasts of any sort just kind-of grew as I aged, to the point where I stopped eating meat of any sort over five years ago. Sure, I miss the taste of a good steak or a nice piece of rosemary chicken with lemon juice on it, but the idea of sitting down at a table and cutting into that--well, I just don't even want to think about it.
Even before I began birding, I would think about the lives of the birds I saw flying around, scavenging for food in city parking lots, begging for food on my college campus, wondering what they did when they weren't looking for food. I remember that bluejay baby I found in my driveway in Austin, dying after being pecked and ejected from his nest by his mother or father bird; wondering why the adult would do that. I remember watching a little chipping sparrow feeding its young, seeing the gapes of the babies and hearing their cheeping as the parent came near the nest. I began to bird in part out of a desire to learn just what birds did all day, in addition to just watching their beautiful feathered forms.
I'm struggling now to end this post, to back-out to some sort of generalization or clever turn of phrase that will serve as a tidy closure. But my mind is still too full of memories: still melancholy about that dove, still wondering what made that bluejay kill its young, still wondering what happened to that robin's eggs and made her abandon her carefully built nest. Still wondering what birds do all day, and watching them to try to find out.