For the Birds by George R. Merrill

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Once, driving back from Cambridge, I noticed lots of small birds (at a distance they looked like barn swallows except they didn’t fidget as much) perching on the wires that stretched between the telephone poles along route 50. Some birds clustered in small groups of two’s, three’s, while others sat feather to feather in rows almost as long as the wire stretched between poles. Were they tweeting each other or just sitting, as folks on porches do, just watching cars and people going by? Occasionally I’d see some bird tail-to to the highway but most faced the road.

Birds, I thought to myself, must gather in interest groups or clubs just as we do, and I imagined those birds on the wires were gathered to watch people, like bird watchers trek off in packs to see birds.

The birds were uncharacteristically still, apparently hunkered down for a spell; I suppose they chose this high ground where they could get advantageous sightings of what we are all about so much of our day; driving somewhere back and forth.
Sitting on the high wire, the birds appeared aloof, pensive. They surveyed the scene in an imperious manner, almost contemptuously, with tails stretched taught and beaks erect. I thought they might be staging a sit-in, a protest of some sort.
If they were watching people, they were up front about it; they sat in plain sight for anyone to see, making no secret of their presence– different from bird watchers who have always struck me as furtive, hiding in the brush or behind trees, stealthy like cats or voyeurs.

I could see some birds were interested more in affiliation than in observing any human activity, a little like lonely singles joining bird watchers, not with the hope of discovering an exotic bird, but in finding a significant other. I say that because as I drove the stretch from Cambridge to Easton, I’d see here and there along the wires, just two birds together, beak to cheek, sitting as close to each other as possible, suggesting to me a kind of selective familiarity, as if perhaps they had found each other on line and eventually had become a ‘thing.’

What do birds see as they watch the highway? Highways, after all, are not hospitable to pedestrians. It’s cars and trucks the bird’s watch. If you were close enough to hear them and could translate, perhaps you’d hear something like, “Look at that one, it’s a tail-gaiter,” or “ See that one over there, it’s an Edsel. I thought they were gone for good.” It seems to me that would get old, fast.

People, as well as cars and highways are a comparatively recent development on our planet. Birds were here 150 million years ago. We on the other hand appeared, in roughly the way we look now, able to stand on two feet (except when driving) and probably a lot more hairy, about 1.5 million years back. Consider, too, that the automobile and all its variations is a recent phenomena (in 1826 Samuel Brown made the first gas powered carriage), and that highways, the big ones like Interstates began to appear only in the late nineteen thirties (I don’t include here Roman roads). This may partially explain why all this is of some interest to birds: considering the longevity of things, we, as well as our roads and vehicles are new kids the block, and at least for a while birds may have found us and our business something of a curiosity. Now it’s becoming a cause for concern. And if birds are reflective at all, they’ll surely become anxious, as I have, about so many cars and trucks in the world.

In the fall, we have invasions of Blackbirds here on the Eastern Shore. Their numbers boggle the mind. On the horizon once, over the water, I saw what seemed like thousands. They wove and undulated like tornados sweeping across the sky, darkening large sections of the horizon at one time. They looked more like swarms of huge bees than flocks of small birds. It was disastrous when they all decided to light in one spot. The din of their ceaseless chirping was deafening and their flocks so dense, that everything standing under them would become coated with bird droppings. The racket they made was so intrusive that when they’d congregate in the trees near my house, I’d take to the porch with a large metal skillet and whack it furiously with a steel spoon; the noise would send them screaming off. It was their sheer numbers, their noise and their indiscriminate dumping of their waste that made them so intolerable.

I wonder if birds watching traffic on route 50 that day weren’t similarly disturbed; troubled by the sheer numbers of cars and trucks, as well as the relentless noise and toxic emissions; what I saw in the language of their bodies was not clinical detachment, but disdain, and a feeling of powerlessness, the same way I would have felt if I had not been able beat my skillet with the metal spoon to drive the obnoxious birds away. All these birds could do was watch the unending stream of cars and trucks passing by under them in overwhelming legions, intruding on the tranquility of their countryside with their constant drone, and filling not only beaks but our skin-thin atmosphere with toxic wastes.

And maybe for our while our winged friends thought that the automobile and the internal combustion engine were curious human inventions; after all, for a long time so did we, and many still do. But now, I suspect, reflective species of all sorts are becoming increasingly of one mind: that the way we have avoided addressing the effects of toxic emissions on our planet is strictly for the birds.

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