Listening to Birds

I’ve never known how far one can trust a bird, and this has lately become a very serious question.

I have noticed—seem alone to have noticed—that the birds are not flying south this winter. They are flying west. They show no sign of distress or of being moved by wills not their own, but I don’t know what such signs would even be. Can a goose be under duress? Can a swallow be blackmailed? How would we know?

More ignorance: All of this has the air of an omen to it, but I’ve never seen an omen before and wouldn’t know how to tell one if I did. I’m probably unqualified to tell you about all of this in the first place, strictly speaking, but, again, I’m the only one who seems to have noticed—at first. Besides: You’re here, aren’t you?

Animals, I’ve been told, tend to be better than humans at predicting natural calamities. Rats flee the flood; cattle kneel before the storm; cats’ tails fall off in the week before a hurricane. Things like this, anyway, I don’t really know. But what about birds? Do they know something‘s coming? Who told them? And are they trying to tell us?

* * *

A field of geese, honking and milling about.

“Why are you doing this?” I shout.

More honking

“What do you want?!”

Honking.

“Please…”

Eventually they take off again—heading west.

* * *

Naturally, I headed south.

There had been nothing in the news to suggest that anything had gone awry in that direction, but who would admit it if it had? Nobody. Pandemonium.

I found nothing. Or, that is, I found the south, in all its variety, unmolested; folks were folks, it was warmer, there were still ball games. I arrived in one town that smelled of hyacinths, dust, and burning animal flesh.

“Where are the birds?” I asked them. They didn’t seem to understand the question, or at least had their own reasons to pretend they didn’t.

One man gestured uncertainly at a crowd of obese pigeons shading themselves on a nearby porch.

“They allus been here—ain’t you got ’em where you’re from?”

“I don’t mean those birds,” I said, and meant it. The man shook his head in wonder.

I resolved to buy a Coke from him, if only to save him embarrassment. He rang it up without speaking or looking me in the eye.

“What’s the state bird around these parts?” I asked, fixing him with an unblinking stare.

He didn’t rightly know.

“The pelican,” I explained; I had looked it up.

The pelican?”

He hadn’t ever seen no pelican, not so long as he lived. Didn’t make much sense when it came right down to it. What were they up to in the capital there?

“All the same,” I said, leaving the rest unspoken. I opened my Coke and left. I couldn’t tell if he followed me out the door with his gaze, but I suspect he did.

The rest of the south was all the same, like anywhere. More hyacinths, more dust, more grilling meat—more birds staying put. In one town, I thought I had finally gotten somewhere when I saw a swallow flying east, but it turns out he was just confused. Turned around real quick and darted off.

I asked the man in the state capital what he thought about the bird situation.

“Bird situation?”

“Yes.”

“What bird situation?”

“Come now, don’t try that on me. I can’t be the only one who notices.”

“Look, what’s this all about?”

“I told you. The birds—

This went on for a while and I explained everything, but he didn’t know the answer and didn’t want to be asked the question, either. He gave me a pamphlet about the state bird, which turned out to be a pheasant of some sort. How could I have gotten that wrong? It had been a pelican when I left, I think. Were even state birds migrating west?

So I went back home.

* * *

The local college had on its staff a professor who specialized in the bird sciences, diverse though they were. I made an appointment with her, hoping she might initiate me into the mysteries. I met her after lunch on a Tuesday. (I could still eat lunch, then.)

Another blunder: she specialized in the history of bird sciences, not in the bird sciences proper. Ornithological historiography. We spoke of the great goldfinch controversy of the 1970s, which I suppose was a form of cutting my losses. I put on my coat and shook her hand, weighing my disappointment against my new knowledge of goldfinches—as one does.

“Doctor, have there ever,” I asked, “been birds that fly west instead of south?”

“Of course,” she said; “all the time. They often fly west and then head south.”

“Shit,” I said.

* * *

Naturally she was lying—but why? I could see no easy answer before me. Was she in on it? Worse: Was she responsible? Surely no one person should be allowed to have so much power over the nation’s birds. I added her name and photograph to my file for later.

The city library was next. I had not yet been able to accept that even the library could be involved in the plot—or perhaps I simply did not wish to.

The computer informed me that there were 469 books under the general heading of “birds” in the stacks. This would never do. I narrowed it down to “birds–migration.” Seventy-five results. Much better.

The section on birds was gone. Empty shelves were all that remained, silent and dusty and suggestive only of nothing. I stood in mute stupefaction. A librarian turned a distant corner with a trolley of romance novels.

“Miss, where are the books on birds?”

“What books do you mean?”

“The books—on birds.”

“But which ones?”

“All of them.”

“Non-Fiction, check around 598.”

“But I’ve just come from there…”

“Oh for heaven’s sake.”

We stared together at the empty shelves.

“I guess they’ve all been taken out. Perhaps you might put one on hold next time?”

“Who would take out every book there is on birds?”

“I don’t know. Someone interested in birds, probably.”

She put one hand in her pocket and rubbed the back of the other against the coarse grain of her pants, as though she were trying to get something off.

So I left.

* * *

Still not believing that the library could be involved, I was now faced with evidence that someone else was following the same trail that I was. It is hard to describe the sensation. On the one hand, it only seemed to add to my difficulties if someone else might be finding or even destroying evidence before I could see it. Were they involved in whatever was happening? Did they come from somewhere farther east? And what was their agenda?

On the other, I was no longer alone. There was another who had noticed, and perhaps more than one. Would I ever meet them? I didn’t know.

I didn’t bother going to any other libraries, or even to bookshops. I knew what I’d find.

* * *

A fact: in ancient times, a type of priest known as an augur, who was in turn known as a haruspex, would cut birds open to see what they had to say. The method by which they understood this has been lost to us, the story goes.

Not wishing to hedge my bets, I was complicatedly pleased to find a dead seagull at the beach. It was largely intactit seemed to have broken its neck somehow, and the only predator to have reached it so far was rot. I placed it in a shoebox and went home.

The modern kitchen is ill-equipped for the duties of the haruspex. I found this out.

Later, after many false starts, I determined that any message the bird’s interior might have carried had long since been extracted. How else to explain its absence? That there might be no message at all never seriously occurred to me, and I can see you laughing at the absurdity of that idea. Of course there was a message. I was so prepared, so very prepared, to read it or to hear it or to feel it. Its intelligibility was a prerequisite for my involvement.

Butnothing.

I was forced, at the last, to ask myself: Had this seagull fallenor had it been pushed?

* * *

As I sat on a patio watching for birds one afternoon, a woman came over a nearby radio to say that she had seen some birds acting strangely in the park. I listened, my notebook open and ready.

“My God, you should have SEEN it,” she said, barely holding back laughter. “I nearly DIED.”

“Yeah, yeah!” said a man on the radio, chuckling and encouraging.

“These two big fat mourning doves were sitting on the bike path, right? And they’re just making that sound they make, ooooOOOooh OOH OOH OOH, and walking around, and nothing’s happening and thenoh my God, ha haBAM, just BAM!”

“Yeah, yeah!” said a man on the radio, chuckling and encouraging.

“Just BAM, you know? This dude on a bike comes out of NOWHERE and justha ha, SPLAT. Takes one of them RIGHT OUT. So we’re all screaming and laughing and this other dove, do you know what it DOES?”

“Yeah, yeah!” said a man on the radio, chuckling and encouraging.

“Do you KNOW? It just flies off! Likehellooooo, you’re a MOURNING DOVE. Mourning? Show some respect, you know?”

Sounds of a man and woman’s laughter. Music fades in as the station is identified.

I closed my notebook. A shadow passed over me, and then another.

I heard a sound. I looked up.

* * *

I am not allowed to tell you where I got the following information. I don’t even like to admit that I got it at all.

1. Birds are warm-blooded.

2. Birds have hollow bones.

3. Some birds can mimic human speech.

4. Some birds can make and use tools.

5. The bird is secretly a mammal.

6. Some birds have been known to tell lies.

7. A fifth of all known bird species migrate annually.

You can see, I think, why I am careful not to divulge my sources.

* * *

My search for the other person was unsuccessful, and I owe that early failure to many problems that I feel were suitably beyond my control. A brief catalogue of what I did not know:

I did not know who to look for, or how many of them there were.

I did not know if they were following me, or if they were only moving along behind me in the same direction.

I did not know if they cared about birds, or if they only cared whether I learned something about birds.

I did not know if it was all a coincidence.

I did not know why the birds were flying west instead of south.

I cannot say that the intervening months have brought any true knowledge, if we may call it that, but I feel more certain about some things than I did before. It is very hard to feel wrong in a place like this.

* * *

At last I drove west.

I encountered many others driving west as well, but none of them seemed to be doing so for the reason that had gripped me. Even as the birds streamed overhead, unerring, these other wayfarers still managed to turn off for picnics or churches or gas stations or even Pittsburgh, once.

I thought I would pick a bird and follow it. Nothing doing; they outraced me, one by one, vanishing over the horizon or into the setting sun. How? The car reached 80, 90, 100 miles per hour, and still they vanished ahead, swallowed up by the larger mystery.

They were faster than me, and getting faster all the time. I had to be fast too.

* * *

My friendfor I know you must be my friend, after all thisyou know how long I’ve been sitting here. There is no doubt about it all, now, and you can see the others who have gathered up and down this coast. Look at themsee? That man over there, and those two by the tree. The one on the bench there, just to the left? I spoke to him about pelicans once, I think. He wasn’t here when I got here, of course. Maybe it’s not him.

I was the first here, but only just.

And of course you’ve looked up, so I don’t need to tell you about that. You’ve seen them too. I can’t believe more people haven’t noticed. Maybe they’re still on their way.

Do you know this is my first time in California?

My heart aches to know what has been left behind, but at least I can know my grief is shared. I can hear them on the wing, in their thousands and thousands, their cries and whispers and rustlings and screams and laments, their lives carrying on and on, flying, the wind, the anger. I hate to look at them now. It hurts too much. They darken the sky, and they are beautiful. I have reached the end, and they have not, and all that remains is to watch each one of those thousands soar out to the sea and over the sea and away. I do not know if they will go somewhere, or if they will go nowhere; honestly, my whole involvement in this matter has been marked by unknowing. But I’m not ashamed.

They are not us. They are not our brothers and sisters. They mimic and they make, they lie and they laugh, they fight and they fly, they crybut they are not us. Or at least not all of us.

I had a family oncedid I ever tell you that? Two daughters. I don’t think I ever asked them about this. They didn’t know. They couldn’t. Probably they’ll never get here, at least not on time. I don’t know. I don’t know.

All I know is where the birds have come from, because that’s where I come from too. And I can look anywherebut east. I want so badly to look back. Why can’t I look back? Can you tell me what’s going on back there? Can you look? Better look even so, it’s not safe here on this track. You never know what’s coming up behind you.

Where did you come from? Aren’t your books overdue?

 

 


Nick Milne lives in Ottawa, Ontario. His work has appeared in Slate, Tin House, The Bull Calf Review, and Canadian Literature.

Image Credit: Corey Hau
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