I didn’t always like birds. I’ve never disliked them, but as a kid I was more interested in fish. We had a set of World Book encyclopedias, and I’d often browse through “O” for ocean, or “F” for fish. Sharks were pretty cool, and whales too, but I was enamored with the smaller reef fish and the bizarre luminescent creatures of the deep. I don’t know where my love for the ocean came from. I grew up in Utah, in a small western suburb far from any bodies of water. It might have been my uncle Val that got me into fish. He took me fishing at Utah lake a few times. But I never liked fishing. I whined and moaned, and I think my uncle grew tired of my attitude and quite taking me along on his trips. Occasionally he’d bring a small striped bass home, alive, in a five gallon bucket, and I’d stare down at it swimming around in circles and try to imagine what it looked like from the side or from underneath. Val also kept some of his catch in a fifty gallon fish tank at home: catfish mostly, but I remember at least one bass. He creatures were so alien. They breathed water; they didn’t have any feet; their eyes were like marbles and they never blinked. And yet they were alive. It was amazing to me. They ate and they pooped and they moved around in the fish tank. Their body was very different from mine, but it was still a body.
I haven’t lost my fascination with fish, but over the years I’v come to feel slightly disconnected from them. I’ve seen very few fish in the wild. I’ve seen plenty of fish at aquariums, but somehow that isn’t the same. It’s difficult to feel a connection with something that has been confined to a glass display. It takes a lot of specialized equipment to see fish in their natural environment. We really have to step out of element and immerse ourselves into their strange and hostile environment in order to get a good look at them, and even then there is no guarantee you’ll see anything.
Birds, on the other hand, are very different. Birds are just about everywhere. Binoculars are about the only tools you need to see them, and sometimes even those are unnecessary. I often don’t even need to go outside to see the birds. I can sit by the living room window and watch them at the feeders, or bathing at the birdbath, or poking around in the garden or indoor the blueberry bush. It’s even possible to attract a wild bird to your hand. I managed to do it a few winters ago, in December. There had been a lot of snow and many of the smaller birds, such as chickadees and nuthatches, were depending on our feeders as there only food source. Realizing this, I sat by the feeder with a handful of sunflower seeds and simply waited. And waited. Very still, very quiet. And waited. Eventually a chickadee landed on my thumb, choose a seed from my hand, and flew away. A minute later it came back for another seed, and then another. I don’t know how long I sat there. Only that when it came time to stand up, I had to consciously return to my body and tell it what to do.
But I also love birds for the same reason I love fish: they are such strange and alien creatures. They have wings in place of arms; their bones are hollow as tunnels; they communicate only in song. But unlike fish, we don’t have to use specialized equipment in order to see them in their natural environment. Birds are at home as much in the air as they are on the ground. Unlike fish, birds will come down to us. We don’t have to go up to them. I appreciate them for that. Every time I see a bird I feel grateful. I want to say “thank you for coming down. Help yourself to the water in the birdbath. Take as many worms from the garden as you like.”