Copyright © 1998, 2003, 2015 by Jim Hull

(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)


Here we sit, blasé about life, bored with our beautiful cars and homes, spoiled and testy because we can't find anything to watch on our dozens of cable channels, dazed by the exuberance of choices all around us. We hide inside, scan the paper, stare into the fridge, call up someone, take a shower, go to bed.

Outside, hidden beyond our oblivion, a spectacular air show takes off everyday. It's been going on for quite some time, like tens of millions of years. And it doesn't matter where you live: city or country, beach or mountaintop. Everywhere are all these birds! And they're up in the air, flapping, soaring, swooping, hovering, cawing, squawking, constantly in motion.

The foothills of Southern California sport a wonderful cast of avians. In the course of a year you can see everything from the tiniest hummingbird to the largest heron. And they're not hard to find. Other side of that window, the one next to the TV.

Step outside, and there they are. Ravens play in the April sky, dive-bombing each other, tumbling, loudly clacking their funny rat-a-tat song, looking pleased and saucy. Hummingbirds argue loudly among themselves, in high clicks and chirps, about ownership of the bottle-brush blossoms. Scrub jays eat peanuts from your hand. Red-tailed hawks circle overhead, scanning for rodents. Seagulls flap lazily overhead in late afternoon, making their way back to the beach.

At night the owls come out to play. The great horned owls hoo to each other, back and forth, the male slightly higher-pitched, over and over in a mantra of bird lust. An eerie, horror-show screech - barn owl? - pierces the night from the eucalyptus above.

I've seen owls at dusk, courting. Both beige - perhaps barn owls again - they flirted. One would hop onto the branch next to the other, staring, waiting, bobbing. The other would sit a moment, then hop away. The romancer would follow. They repeated this dance right across the tree.

Birds are dive-bombing your house, and you don't even know it. Crows land on the roof and clean their beaks on your gutters. Mouring doves make tragic coos, then proceed to chew up your ice plant, despite the snake scarecrows and the tossed stones and the frustrated shouts. Wrens and finches and sparrows - those little brown ones that flit nervously - work the bushes in a constant, hyperactive search for food. They have the charming habit of raking dirt and leaves across your nice, clean walkway, exposing tasty insects. Somebody give them downers! Mockingbirds swoop across the yard in a diving flash of gray and white, then perch above you to sing their gorgeous, arrogant stanzas, often at two in the morning just outside your window when you want to shoot them.

All these birds can be active at the same time. All of them, even the annoying ones, have the magical ability to take to the air. They can go just about anywhere they like. Sort of like Superman. We humans, for all our powers, must buy a ticket and sit in a big metal tube if we wish to fly. The birds are worthy, at least in that sense, of our awe. Some scientists believe birds are directly descended from dinosaurs. If so, we now know what happened to some of the Jurassic Park crowd: they simply took to the air and flew away. In that sense, too, they deserve our interest, for their very lineage has an aura of magic and mystery.

From time to time the local brushland receives out-of-town visitors. One evening a flock of vultures landed in a nearby eucalyptus and camped overnight. The next morning they awoke slowly, stretching out first one wing and then another in the morning sun. Before long they flapped laboriously into the sky and were on their way. Another time the neighbors found a large, reddish-brown bird next to their swimming pool. We decided it was a ring-necked pheasant, partly from its loud, obnoxious, piercing cry. Pretty bird, but it was like a peacock in the backyard: much more of that noise and people would have been signing petitions. It departed after several hours. But I would have risked the noise just for its slightly exotic presence.

Once, on the freeway, steering through clogged traffice, I happened to look up and beheld, literally out of the blue, a flock of white birds circling slowly, taking turns flapping, in a kind of magestic, slow swirl that took away all my cares in an instant. Something about their stately flight took me out of time. I made a few calls and learned they were a stray flock of rare white pelicans, ranging far from their Salton Sea residence, searching for water in a drought year. A week later I looked out my window and - again, out of nowhere - there they were, the white pelicans, flecked in black, circling, their rotating group slowly migrating across the sky toward the house.

Now things get spooky. A week farther on I was in Malibu Canyon visiting that Hindu temple just off the highway. I'd never been inside and thought, What the heck. I entered just as a Hindu priest was giving puja, which - near as I can tell - is a kind of vegetarian offering to the gods, involving bananas and oranges and chanting and a little magic water splashed on your forehead. The small temple, centered in the walled courtyard, was dark, candle-lit, incensed, and crowded with a group of devotées. At the altar reared the black, seated, flower-bedecked, slightly forbidding statue of some important deity. I stood through two entire pujas and stepped outside feeling pretty blissed out. I stared up at the beautiful, ornate spire that rose above the temple ... and there again were the white pelicans, circling directly overhead.

Were they following me?

I've heard an old legend that each of us has a guardian animal. I suppose mine, of all creatures, is a pelican.

Recently I looked out the kitchen window, through the slight haze of a rainy afternoon, and spied a large bird perched in the tree that had once been the overnight roost of the vultures. I armed myself with binoculars and Peterson's Field Guide to Western Birds, and pulled the creature into fucus. Big and gray, blue-black points on its shoulders, a funny black tuft on the crown, it sat - sharp beak pointing about it - head now slumped down, now erect atop a long neck. It looked like some sort of stork or crane. Again I called my best source (a woman birder who seems to know everything avian in the Southland), and she said, "It's a great blue heron." A what? I thought those lived in the Everglades, or something. "Oh, they're all over, especially if your city has a park with a lake, or big goldfish pools." Well, there are plenty of swimming pools hereabouts, and I've seen a few carp in the odd pond. Great blue heron, eh? "Yes. Congratulations."

Congratulations? Aha! Great blue herons aren't that common after all.

Next time the TV drones on or the radio seems repetitive, step outside and put that giant mammalian brain of yours to work observing the local birds. It might amuse you more than yet another session with the remote.

"There are joys that beg to be ours. God sends ten thousand truths that come about us like birds seeking entry. But we are shut up to them, and so they bring us nothing, but sit and sing awhile upon the roof, and then fly away."

-- Henry Ward Beecher


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