On Birds

Let us consider the birds of the air, with their feathers and their wingspans and their tiny little heads. It is an arresting thought that many of the birds we know today are descended from the fierce and rapacious pterodactyl of prehistory. Though we should not forget that many modern birds are themselves fierce and rapacious. We need only think of the swan, for example, or dozens of different types of gull.

You can test the fierceness and rapaciousness of a seagull by placing a paper bag full of breadcrumbs on the wall abutting the promenade at a seaside resort. Stand well back, and wait. Sooner rather than later, a seagull, or seagulls, will swoop upon the paper bag and frenziedly slash it to ribbons to gain access to the breadcrumbs within, which it will gobble up so greedily that many of the crumbs will be scattered upon the paving. Further birds – other gulls, or pigeons – will then descend upon the leavings, and within seconds not a trace of breadcrumb will remain, and the shreds of paper bag will be blown away on the winds.

This is an example of the sort of violence Tennyson must have had in mind when he wrote of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” in In Memoriam A. H. H. (1849), even though no blood has actually been spilled. The seagull is a scavenger rather than a bird of prey, the chancer of the avian world. But what I wish to advert to here is, let us say, attitude. A seagull may not slash at and tear to shreds something quick and alive, say for an example a vole or a hamster or, indeed, you, standing there at the seaside, but that is a mere accident of evolution. It is certainly imbued with all the fierceness and rapacity of its prehistoric ancestor. Ask the paper bag.

Of course there are other birds, befeathered and bewinged and with tiny little heads, which are more docile. One thinks of budgerigars. One does not think for too long of budgerigars, because quite frankly their charms pall rather quickly, unless one has a particular “thing” for them. It was long thought that the budgerigar’s natural habitat was a cage plopped on a sideboard in an ornate parlour or drawing-room crowded with knicknacks and gewgaws, lit by gas, which perhaps tells you most of what you need to know about them. Their heads are particularly tiny, in relation to their bodies.

The tininess of birds’ heads in general means that there is not much room inside them for the brain, which in itself is therefore a tiny thing. We might wonder at how much, or how little, cognitive ability resides in the average brain of the average bird. Not much at all, we will conclude. As a life form, birds are pretty thick. Yet their lack of intelligence has not prevented them being masters of the air, nest-builders, hunters and scavengers and even – in the case of Newfoundland crows – skilful exploiters of the possible uses of twigs. We should not be tempted to discount the powers of birds simply because most of them are stupid.

The thing most types of birds can do that we cannot is, of course, to fly. That is where their wings are so decisive as appendages. Mankind has had to fashion wings out of balsa wood and straw and string, and still he cannot fly. I think this may be to do with the fact that we cannot flap our arms with sufficient rapidity. An interesting question to ask is if you would accept a putative Faustian bargain, that you would be granted the ability to fly in return for having your brain shrunk to the size of a budgerigar’s, with the commensurate diminution in mental capacity. To give your reply to that question some import, we would have to predicate that the process be irreversible. I think all of us would cry out an impassioned “Yes!” if we thought we could fly about for a couple of days, stupid as a bird, and then resume our normal flightless daily lives with reswollen brains and our wits intact.

Let us further assume that we could choose not just to be granted the gift of flight but actually to become a bird. Which bird would you pick? Most of us, I think, would avoid the fate of becoming a budgerigar, or indeed an ostrich. Not only is the ostrich particularly moronic, but it cannot fly. I suppose a very stupid person, who did not know these things about ostriches, might accept the Faustian bargain and then choose to be transformed into an ostrich, with the net result of simply being turned into a life form even more stupid than he started out as, without the compensation of being able to fly.

It occurs to me that there may be a profitable opera or stage musical to be made from that notion. It would of course be a tragedy. The part of the protagonist would have to be written with exceeding care, for there is a risk that an audience would be resistant to identifying closely with such an irredeemably thick hero. So perhaps a comedy would be more appropriate. One can readily imagine packed theatres loud with laughter at the antics of Ostrich Man. It would be cruel laughter.

Birds, too can be cruel, but they do not laugh. At least I am unaware of any birds that laugh, as opposed to birds whose song can be interpreted as chuckling or guffawing. But such interpretations are mere anthropomorphism, a besetting sin. Can birds commit sin? I am sure this is a question theologians must have asked, over the centuries, but I am not familiar with their arguments. I would assume that the answer must be “No, birds are incapable of sin”, for the simple reason that they are so damned stupid.

Another thing birds can do that we cannot is to lay eggs, but that is a topic so plump with possibilities that it deserves an essay of its own.

2 thoughts on “On Birds

  1. Thank you so much for another great Hooting Yard on the Air.
    I felt as if it were Christmas inside myself.
    You are the greatest literary genius.
    I do not say that is my opinion, it is the truth.
    I like it when you list kinds of birds.

  2. Or in the case of gulls one can further test them as one Mr Leopold Bloom did on June 16th 1904.
    ‘He threw down among them a crumpled paper ball. Elijah thirtytwo feet per sec is com. Not a bit. The ball bobbed unheeded on the wake of swells, floated under by the bridgepiers. Not such damn fools. Also the day I threw that stale cake out of the Erin’s King picked it up in the wake fifty yards astern. Live by their wits.’

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