I love birds.
Today, Carol and I set up a new feeder — a pair, in fact — to provide cold weather nourishment for the robins in our yard. Along with the standard tube-style feeder and the riotously popular fat ball vending station that already bring in dozens of visitors throughout the day, the new feeders lie within sight of our bedroom window, where we keep a formidable set of binoculars. The new units were necessary because unlike our other avian guests, the robins turn up their little beaks at the fat ball feeder and its suet payload. They prefer mealworms, an avian foodstuff that Carol handles with the wary delicacy she usually reserves for radioactive isotopes and sweet potatoes.
I could spend hours gawking at the activity around the feeders, as the birds flash in and out, jostling and gorging with almost military efficiency. In fact, one might naturally conclude that I am a bird hobbyist, perhaps even an expert.
But one would be mistaken.
I know that the birds we accommodated today are robins. I’m confident of that fact because Carol says so; and the only time she is untruthful to me is when she tells me I look fine with facial hair. In similar fashion, I know that the peripatetic little beauties that flock to the suet feeder like redditers to GameStop shares are called tits, because our friend Susan assures me so. (And to any fourteen year old boys who are reading this, I say stop snickering and go back to 4chan.) We have an absolute mob of great tits and blue tits that frequent our place. But that’s pretty much where my knowledge of les oiseaux starts and ends.
Generally, within most subject areas that interest me, I am quite keen for taxonomy. I could take you to a US military airshow of just about any era, for instance, and call out the different aircraft models with self-satisfied glee. In similar fashion, when Carol and I are watching TV dramas, I’ll gratuitously identify the weapons in use:
“Do you think he’s going to kill that woman?”
“Nah, he’s got a Kel-Tec P11. He can’t hit the ground with that thing.”
Have I mentioned yet that my wife is remarkably patient?
At any rate, for some reason this same attention to detail has not crossed over to biological phenomena, however much they may fascinate me. While I can easily spot the differences between, say, a Boeing 737-800 and a nearly-identical 737 MAX (a potentially useful skill for surviving air travel), when it comes to the flowers in my yard — many of which I planted myself, and I adore with my whole heart — I can sort of tell you which ones are roses. Beyond that, the only distinction I can muster is between the plants I spray with Neem oil and ones I spray with Roundup.
For birds, the apotheosis of my taxonomic skill is to distinguish between cute birds (tits and other small, colorful ones), badass birds (big predator types that are way too awesome to be cute), and bird-birds (all the ones that are sort of tree-color, which seems to be the majority). Not that I assign any hierarchy of value to these categories. I love the bird-birds the same as the others; they’re hoppy and quick and shrewd-seeming, and they’re welcome at my feeders anytime.
I must admit that one group of birds does stand out from the rest in my mind: the corvids. A family that includes the crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, and — my favorite — the magpies, corvids are such a singular bunch they can’t help but capture my imagination.
For one thing, they’re smart. They recognize individual people (including Dick Cheney), they use multi-part tools (including cars), and they even “ponder the content of their own minds.” All of which makes them smarter than other birds, as well as most or all quadrupeds and 2nd lieutenants. Corvids remember stuff — and they know where you live. There’s a reason that a bunch of them together are called a murder of crows.
Then, of course, there’s the whole attitude thing. When a regular bird chirps, it’s just soundscape; but when a corvid squawks, it’s personal. You know what I mean. When a crow says something, he’s talkin’ to you, Ace. I speak corvid only slightly better than I do French, but I’m pretty sure last Wednesday our resident backyard magpie gave me an anatomically dubious suggestion involving my binoculars and a tube of industrial lubricant. Then, after hoovering up some of the bird food I’d dropped on the concrete septic tank lid, he fixed me with a hard stare and added “… and when you’re done with that, bring us some real food, ’cause this stuff is for the cats.”
Which I did, of course. Because he knows where I live.