The Strangeness of Birds
The fences started it all. A few years ago, I started seeing large swatches of beach roped off to protect the nests of least terns and piping plovers. Appearing in early spring, the fences annoyed some people, who couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to prevent their Labradoodles from scampering up the beach. I’m a dog-lover myself, but once I read the explanatory signs, I was on the side of the birds. That image of the plover—tiny, round, puffy, small-beaked and big-eyed—posted on the sign like a mug-shot, shook me out of myself in some profoundly consoling way.
Piping plovers are tiny, sand-colored, and endangered. They nest in small hollows in the sand near the dune grass. Their nests are hard to see and easy to disturb by accident. Their eggs and flesh are delicious to crows, foxes, raccoons, dogs, and hawks; and until they can fly, the chicks provide great fun for any animal that enjoys a pre-prandial chase. Both male and female birds tend to the eggs during the 25-28-day incubation period. This and the period immediately after hatching, 25-35 days when the chicks can’t yet fly, are their most vulnerable periods. Both adults and their unfledged young make frequent trips between nest and wrack-line as they forage for food, leaving them vulnerable to predators and clumsy people.
So I’m on the side of the fences, too. Each time I walk the ocean beach in Amagansett, or the bay beach at Louse Point, I look lovingly toward the roped-off area, happy to think the plovers are safe.
But I also worry. I’m a worrier by nature, gifted with what Joseph Conrad called “the faculty of swift and forestalling vision.” At the top of stairways and precipices, I see myself smashed and bloodied at the bottom. On car trips, I startle my husband with involuntary gasps, certain from my position in the passenger seat that a passing car is about to cut us off or a cement pipe loosen from the bouncing, overladen truck ahead of us. Imminent disasters appear to me with paralyzing immediacy. If I were a plover, I’d be far too certain about the tragic outcome ever to lay an egg. I’ve seen those dogs, with their galumphing stride and cheerful smacking tails. I’ve seen hawks overhead, looking ominous. So every spring, when the fencing goes up around the plovers’ nesting ground, I walk the beach with my husband and daughter, envisioning plundered nests and dying birds.
Imagine my horror, then, late last spring, at seeing a puffy, sand-colored bird tottering in apparent pain, ten or twenty yards ahead of where my daughter and I were strolling. We’d been happily watching the sanderlings skitter along the water line, admiring the terns, with their black caps and elegant carriage, when there it was: one of those endangered plovers limping ahead of us down the beach. I was stricken. “Look, it’s hurt,” I said to my daughter, certain it was about to fall over dead at our feet.
I thought about taking the bird to the vet, but instantly all the possible negative consequences sprang to mind: physical injury to the bird; emotional injury to the bird and its family; my own death from bird flu. A few days earlier I’d carried a tortoise from the middle of the road to the woods where it was heading, but that’s the extent of my willingness to meddle with wildlife. Even then, I’d envisioned its leathery neck stretching, its head spinning around to sink fangs into my hand.
In the case of the injured piping plover, I averted my eyes and moaned. The bird was wobbling madly from side to side now, one wing crooked awkwardly to the side. Clearly its wing was broken, it could no longer fly, and it was trying to get somewhere fast. “I can’t look,” I said, covering my eyes. My daughter, a nurse accustomed to dealing with others’ pain, led me on as I rested my head face down on her shoulder, grateful to be indulged; we would pass the injured bird without my having to see it.
But we didn’t pass the bird. It was moving amazingly fast, considering its injury, staying ahead of us as we walked. We were nearing the end of the beach when I finally lifted my head and opened my eyes. At that moment, abruptly, inconceivably, the bird flapped its injured wing back into position and swirled into the sky. We were ecstatic: the bird had miraculously recovered.
A few weeks later, walking the ocean beach just west of Amagansett, my husband and I chatted with one of the conservationists monitoring the endangered birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She told us how to recognize the plovers by their black-ringed necks and unibrows. And she told us about their amazing talent for distracting predators by feigning injury. A hungry hawk will follow an obviously wounded bird in full view, rather than try to find a nest hidden in a sand-hollow. The piping plover’s “broken-wing display” leads enemies away from the nest; “eat me,” they’re saying, “I’m easy to catch.” But once the predator is sufficiently far from the nest, the performer flies away and circles back to the nest by air.
I’d been outsmarted by a bird. My “swift and forestalling vision” had presented me with all that would happen next—the bird’s collapse followed by the arrival of that hungry hawk—and it had been totally wrong.
None of this has made me stop worrying of course. I still anticipate disaster at every turn. And aging, I have to say, vindicates pessimism: not too many surprises about where all this is heading. But birds, in their imponderable strangeness, offer a kind of antidote. In Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, the main character, Ernest Pontifex, is taken to the doctor by a friend who’s concerned about his depression. Pontifex had rejected his minister-father’s religion, only to fall prey to a series of disasters (prison, penury, and inadvertent bigamy among them). “Cross him,” the doctor advises. “At once. Crossing is the great medical discovery of the age. Shake him out of himself by shaking something else into him.” More specifically, he suggests “a course of the larger mammals.” Ernest takes to visiting the elephants at the London Zoo on a regular basis and finds his depression lifting. I’ve taken to visiting birds.
What I like about birds is their recalcitrance, their resistance to any meaning I want to place on them. “Crossing” jolts Ernest Pontifex out of his self-involved despair by forcing him to contemplate an animal unlike himself, one immune to his kind of failure. When I watch a bird, I’m similarly struck by its construction of the world on its own terms rather than mine. For seagulls, Louse Point Road isn’t a road but an oyster-opener, and Accabonac Bay a fully stocked refrigerator. Think of the way a cormorant vanishes in one place then, after an impossibly long time, turns up someplace else entirely. What a relief, given humans’ propensity for screwing things up, that birds have purposes of their own and the power to achieve them.
And what a relief for me, pessimist that I am, to find that sometimes, the next step into the future brings neither the imagined disaster, nor the humdrum absence of disaster, but something else instead: a miracle that reminds us how little we know of the world’s ability to amaze us.