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Ducks – Glendale, California
My older sister wins a couple of ducklings at the city’s annual carnival in the early 1950s, and my two younger sisters and I wear our swimsuits when we play with them on the grass in front of our small rented home. Mom brings out a large bowl of water, and we splash each other and the ducks. Quack-Quack and Ducky rummage through leftover peas and corn, and pull up worms and slugs. They’re our first pets. Later will come Tillie, an orphaned tortoise found in the road, and Chop-Chop the parakeet. We laugh hugging our ducks as they shake the water from their wings. We’re not like the Perry boys next door. They’re mean to the two ducks they won at that same carnival, and they say nasty words and think it’s funny to chase me with a knife. They don’t go to the Methodist Church and learn about the innocence of doves and the soaring of eagles. A few months after their arrival, Quack-Quack and Ducky disappear. About that same time, the Perry boys wave bloody feathers in our horrified faces and say they killed their ducks and are going to eat them. Mom tells us our ducks needed to be set free because they’re grown up. She’s vague about where they were sent, so every time we see a lake or visit the children’s area at the Griffith Park Zoo, we ask our parents if those are our ducks. Decades later, my sisters and I are dismayed to learn that Mom wasn’t raising our ducks for freedom but fattening them for a “chicken” dinner at which I asked for seconds.
Jays and Woodpeckers – San Bernardino Mountains, California
From my grandparents’ isolated, ramshackle cabin, I trailblaze in homemade moccasins through ferns and other foliage, pretending to be Davy Crockett, who first appeared on our black-and-white TV in 1954, exalted by a song that hailed him as “king of the wild frontier.” I’m armed with a harmless plastic pistol because I have no interest in knocking a jay or a woodpecker off a pine tree with a sling shot or a Red Ryder BB gun. My hero is Abraham Lincoln, who turned our February 12th birthday into a state holiday. I know that, at seven, Abe felt guilt-ridden after shooting a turkey and gave up hunting. Years later, on a country road, he came across two baby birds blown from their nest and was troubled until he placed them back with their mother. As President, he pardoned Jack, a turkey destined for Christmas dinner, and laughed watching his son Tad lead it around the White House on a leash. And so I leave the jays and woodpeckers in peace. The cabin has neither phone nor working TV nor radio. Sometimes my sisters and I crank up the Victrola and play scratched records from the ‘30s and ‘40s. But the steady soundtrack of those summer days…of our water fights, card games, watermelon feasts…is an orchestration of chittering insects, the shreeka shreeka and gleep gleep of jays, and the cackling, chirping, drumming of woodpeckers.
Parrots – Glendale, California
Grampa Phil keeps Oscar the cantankerous parrot in a rusty cage in the cramped kitchen of his teetering house. In back is a three-room shack in which he upholsters car seats and canes wicker chairs. In addition to helping him with his work and fixing meals for him and friends who just happen to drop in at lunchtime or supper, grandma cleans and feeds her mother who’s senile and bound to a wheelchair. Grandma’s forced to keep her short, round body in constant motion to meet all the demands on her, including keeping Oscar in sunflower seeds and changing the cage’s messy newspaper. Often Great-Grandma Keese cries out from the back bedroom, “Maud-ie! Maud-ie!” Oscar echoes, “Maud-ie! Maud-ie!” Disturbed by the racket, Gramps shouts, “Maud-ie! Maud-ie!” Grandma shuffles from the front room or kitchen. “Maud-ie!” from Great-Grandma. “Maud-ie!” from Oscar. “Maud-ie!” from Gramps. Years after Oscar and Great-Grandma Keese die, when she’s in her 90s, Grandma pretty much spends all day in bed. When she wants a glass of ice water or a change of diapers, it’s her time to cry, “Phil-l-l! Phil-l-l!” By then, I want nothing to do with parrots.
Plovers – South Africa
I’m composing a farewell poem for Carlie, my Australian lover during an overland truck safari from Cairo to Jo-burg, South Africa, in 1973–74, and I want to include the image of a bird from our journey. I consider stilts and storks, flamingos and flycatchers, cormorants and cuckoos, ostriches and oxpeckers. Then I remember a long-legged, long-billed bird with a gray back and chestnut-coloured breast, nape and forehead, and write…When we were at the equator line, / when the moon and sun shared the same sky, / did you know a plover bird flew across your face, / hesitating in the shadow of your lashes, / following the dip in the line of your lips, / taking a tear from your cheek in its beak to a cloud, / finally leaving its wings for you to wear / as a bow in your hair, giving you flight? Aboard a plane on its way to Nairobi, I imagine Carlie crying when she finds the poem under her pillow.
Pigeons – Cuernavaca, Mexico
I’ve been traveling for a few weeks on my way to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America by bus and train. At night, I can’t seem to strike up a conversation with any of the American students and tourists dining on tamales and enchiladas in different cafés. I shift my search to the plaza, where I sit on a bench watching the circling parade of lovestruck couples. Mentally I list my problems, including an unsettled stomach and the thousands and thousands of bowel-jarring miles that lie ahead of me during the next 10 months or so. Even if I want to, I can’t go home because I quit my newspaper job, moved out of my apartment and, worse of all, promised readers in a final article that I was going to reach my destination or die trying. As I envy the flirtatious couples, I tell myself, “It can’t get any more miserable than this, can it?” And then a pitiless pigeon on a bombing mission eyeballs the top of my head.
Bats – Brazil
On a bus going north from Rio, an Austrian backpacker named Johan lifts his pantleg to expose two slits above his ankle. He says that lying in his hammock one night in the inexpensive seaside village of Canoa Quebrada, he felt something lapping at his leg. He knocked it away and went back to sleep. In the morning, he finds not mosquito welts but incisions left by a vampire bat. On public television once, I watched bats siphon blood from cattle and household pets, but I don’t remember the narrator saying anything about human victims. I’m afraid of needles, but I’m petrified of fangs. I finger my beard and tell Johan that I’m going to Canoa Quebrada, but I’ll be sleeping with one eye open.
Chickens – rural China
In 1985, not long after Chinese officials opened up parts of their country to independent travellers, a Canadian named Jean and I hitch a ride in a truck carrying a load of hides. The driver parks beside a stream watering rice paddies and uses a pail to wash the windows and fill the radiator. To save gas, he coasts at every opportunity, even uphill, so we average 15 kilometres an hour. At night, the driver stops at a rustic restaurant, where we celebrate Jean’s birthday with beer. As a dinner suggestion, the woman proprietor holds up a live chicken. After we nod, we’re aghast when she turns the chicken upside down, slits its throat, and lets the blood spill into a pan. Then she pours boiling water over the bird and takes it outside for plucking. Hacked into small pieces and fried, the chicken sits on our plates a half hour after its demise. The cook’s family crowds around our table to watch us rare foreigners manoeuvre our chopsticks. For less than 50 cents each, we sleep upstairs under netting which keeps out mosquitoes and the rats that scurry across our room all night. We’re awakened at five by a rooster crowing sorrowfully outside our door. I worry he’s lamenting the masticated fate of his feathered friend.
Vultures – Lhasa, Tibet
On the flight to Lhasa, several of us backpackers decide that if our plane crashes into a Himalayan peak – preferably Mount Everest – we want a sky burial, which we envision as a sacred and natural disposal of our bodies, our husks. One morning, chilled by a cold, dusty wind, we join five Tibetan workers sitting around a fire sipping yak butter tea, honing their knives. The men are a rowdy, lewd lot. One holds Rose’s leg, and another fingers the water bag around Betsy’s neck. I’m wearing cutoffs, and still another strokes the hair on my bare legs. I study the men’s hands and they’re covered with large, black, hideous warts of suspicious origin. After the workers share their cookies, they walk onto the huge burial rock where two female bodies are lying. The two butchers put on blood-spotted white jumpsuits. One butcher shifts the position of a young woman by rudely yanking her leg. With that gesture, we realize this is not going to be a religious experience. Apparently the Buddhist ceremony was conducted the day before. First the bodies are skinned from the neck to the ankle. No blood to speak of. The legs are cut, the rib cage broken. The black hair is scalped and tossed from the rock. After the butchers carve the bodies and the three others pound the bones into powder and mix it with barley flour, hundreds of vultures swoop onto the rock and eat the pieces of flesh, tugging for control of intestines, stirring the blood scent into the breeze blowing our way. The flapping of the vultures’ huge wings floats feathers into the air. Small birds devour the powder. During a pause, a few of the large birds – their beaks blood-stained – stare at us as if to ask, “Who’s next?” Afterward, as our group hikes beneath the rock toward a monastery, vultures leap into flight just above our heads. When I camped on the African savanna, I thought it great fun to lie on the ground motionless and watch the carrion birds circle overhead. I don’t repeat my prank.
Bald Eagles – Mississippi River
I agree with many of Ben Franklin’s ruminations, but not this one: “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy.” I beg to differ because one of the cherished memories of the two months I spent canoeing the Mississippi from St. Paul to New Orleans at age 56 is this: On a misty morning, on a silent river empty of barges and motorboats, my young poet friend Paige and I are paddling to our own inner music while majestic bald eagles rest atop tall trees, gazing down at us, offering their benediction.
Hummingbirds – Durham, North Carolina
Manny the Praying Mantis, I figure, isn’t much different from the squirrels who regularly steal seed from the squirrel-proof bird feeder hanging from the roof over our apartment balcony. He likely loiters on the red rim of our hummingbird feeder because he wants to pilfer the tasty nectar of red water and sugar. We always welcome hummingbirds, smile at the hum of their wingbeats and the sight of their lapping, long tongues. I’m afraid Manny’s going to scare them away, so I occasionally lift him off his favourite perch and catapult him over the railing toward grass two floors below. This free fall doesn’t seem to maim his mandibles or diminish his persistence because two or three days later, he’s reclimbed the side of the building and is reclining on the feeder again. I tell friends about Manny’s humorous exploits, and one of them warns me that behind the bulging eyes of his triangular head is a cunning assassin. When I express astonishment, I’m told to check it out on the internet. On YouTube, I type, praying mantis hummingbird. I watch a clip. I’m shocked and sickened. While I don’t crush Manny after that, I’m going to turn him into an insect version of Sisyphus, pushing his elongated body up the apartment walls, forever finding himself tumbling to the grass. Before he can ensnare one of our beloved hummingbirds, I can only hope, he’ll be cannibalized by his mate during an act of lovemaking.
Seagulls – Outer Banks, North Carolina
On a moonless night, our beachfront hotel suddenly casts a bar of bright light upon the breaking waves, trying no doubt to create a romantic setting for couples like us, kissing and handholding on their balconies. And then arises the manic shrieking and wing flapping of seagulls drawn to an endless buffet of silver mullets blindly leaping into illuminated talons and beaks, victims of phototaxis. Though they only follow their natural instincts during these hours of gluttony and gore, I can never again think poetic thoughts about seagulls gliding across a cerulean sky. I pity children who playfully chased the birds across the sand in sunlight and now watch them entangled in a riptide of shadow and bloodlust.
Puffins – Iceland
As children, my sisters and I would’ve adored goofy-looking puffins, the web-footed birds with triangular beaks of many colours. The cuddly clowns of the sea who can fly and swim…whose colonies I watch while touring the island. I wince when I learn Icelanders consider puffin hearts a delicacy. In China, I ate snake. In Colombia, guinea pig. While in Iceland, I might eat fermented shark or cod tongue, but a puffin heart? I’d rather be set adrift on an iceberg in a glacial lagoon.
Different Birds – Laurel, Maryland
Now that I’ve managed to survive into my mid-70s, I mostly travel in the past. I don’t bird watch so much as remember birds watched: emus and bustards in Australia, barn owls and gray partridges in Britain, albatrosses and penguins in New Zealand, lapwings and bee-eaters in India, peacocks and peahens at Flannery O’Connor’s rustic farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. I won’t tramp again through the Amazon or ride a creaky dhow on the Nile or hitchhike in the Andes, with its condors and coots. So, I need birds to come to me…to our patio…to the feeder and flowers from the forest beyond a swath of grass. Cardinals, starlings, orioles, crows, all of them special in their own way. Always I remember the words of naturalist Lyanda Haupt: “Birds will give you a window, if you allow them. They will show you secrets from another world…”
My life, has been guided by wanderlust. I thumbed on six continents, hopped freight trains from L.A. to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and canoed the Mississippi for two grueling months. In my early twenties during the Hippie Era, I hitched around America with my folk-singing partner. We left with a penny each. We returned to California a hundred days later with five cents apiece. We found that singing for your supper is a good way to lose weight.