Sparrows For A Farthing

They say that the Age­laius phoeniceus sings from the top of a swing­ing cat­tail and by God it does, right there at the bot­tom of the quar­ry. Like­wise, just as the field guide promised, from my back door I saw an Corvus brachyrhynchus buzzing a Buteo jamaicen­sis. Ten times, the crow flapped past the hawk’s head and the hawk bat­ted it, a lit­tle half-heart­ed­ly, as though it was afraid to fall off the pow­er line.

I walked past the chick­en coop in the alley. Over­head on a high branch there was a hawk, and I wished it to be a Buteo lin­ea­tus; it was just plau­si­ble enough. I couldn’t see any stripes to the breast; but then, I didn’t want to, I want­ed a dif­fer­ent Buteo, anoth­er name for my list. How on earth are prop­er bird­ers hon­est with them­selves? If I had been unlucky enough to grow up with Poké­mon I don’t know that I ever would have emerged. That is: I have a dead­ly desire to cross off every ele­ment in a set series. 

On the oth­er hand, you can get sick of any­thing. After a cer­tain point the Tur­dus migra­to­rius stopped ever going away in spring, and then you some­how get sick of hav­ing this blame­less, cheery bird around. Since I found out that is what an Amer­i­can robin is called behind its back I can’t stop throw­ing it in their faces. Turdus! 

Dreamy after­noons with the Zenai­da macroura. Their cousins the Colum­ba livia, who were ever-present in Boston and here are only ever seen high up on a pow­er line in front of the fire sta­tion. All my life the Car­di­nalis car­di­nalis and the Cyanocit­ta crista­ta have been going off like car alarms around me and I nev­er heard them, but I did hear the Zenai­da macroura every time, coo­ing with a will as though it was try­ing to urge some­thing along.

Lord, give me more birds, but do not ask me to get up at 5 in the morn­ing, do not ask me to dri­ve four hours on a tip, do not even ask me to spend my time con­duct­ing dou­ble-blind tri­als with the bird­feed­er. I expect too much of my neigh­bor­hood walks; I get repaid with great bushels of spar­rows, spar­rows pour­ing out of the gut­ter and into the priv­et. They are all Pass­er domes­ti­cus, as far as I can see. There must be some Spizel­la passe­ri­na or Melospiza melo­dia mixed in some­where, but damned if I’m going to stand there gog­gling at them. 

Some­one has; they have dis­tin­guished the Poe­cile atr­i­capil­lus from the Poe­cile car­o­li­nen­sis on the slim basis of one singing faster than the oth­er. That you can begin to dis­tin­guish species based on such a thing seems to start to tell you some­thing about the busi­ness of ornithol­o­gy, the ardor peo­ple have in sim­ply sort­ing out one group from anoth­er, the pains peo­ple must take to care for them at all. 

Two local sight­ings of Pheuti­cus ludovi­cianus: one pic­tured on a brick of suet, the oth­er dead on a side­walk downtown.


A page from the Vienna Dioscorides, ca. 515 CE.

Last year around now, hav­ing tak­en the time to look out in the hopes of see­ing some­thing worth see­ing: a Mni­otil­ta varia up in the Nor­way maple. How do you unfold the val­ue of an expe­ri­ence like that? 

With­in a dis­cus­sion, we each get tempt­ed to each hold up one inter­est­ing cause as the main thing deter­min­ing aes­thet­ic worth; that way, every­one can have a part on the field of play. But it seems a bet­ter account of real­i­ty to say that an ecol­o­gy of plea­sure unfolds from any such expe­ri­ence. If we attempt to stick close to the most obvi­ous cause of the plea­sure, the bird itself, we find some qual­i­ties that more or less hang onto the thing itself – the way that the dis­tinct stripes move along its body, tapered to a point at both ends. It seems designed; we hard­ly it admire it more as a prod­uct of evo­lu­tion than we would if it was an automa­ton set loose. 

But then already we are tilt­ing into the social world – that apart from any pro­grammed appre­ci­a­tion for harm­less lit­tle birds, there is a way in which we com­pare a work of nature to what a human hand can do, or look for the social val­ue in such a sight­ing, who it can be report­ed to, in what esteem oth­ers hold it in. 

That in turn is not the mas­ter fact to rule the judg­ment, because it then shades into the many poten­tial things that are won­der­ful about the whole sit­u­a­tion – that the sight­ing hap­pens at an oppor­tune time, that it illu­mi­nates a dull scene, that it sends you on its own pleas­ant lit­tle jour­ney of fact-find­ing (the thing is called Mni­otil­ta varia, for God’s sake). 

A Wikipedia image dis­tills the self­same black-and-white war­bler to its pro­file on the branch of a red­bud in bloom, and this is only cloy­ing – this is the small­est account of what see­ing a bird in con­text means, because in con­text the sight is the reward for sus­tained look­ing, for any­thing mov­ing in the tan­gle that isn’t the same habit­u­al sparrow. 

(March 2023)