by Rex Burress

... Vainly the fowler's eye
Might mark thy distant flight to do thee wrong,
As, darkly painted against the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along ...
                              --William Cullen Bryant

In the crimson sky of an autumnal evening on the Feather River, gulls were in their daily flight headed for Lake Oroville. All day, thousands of different species of gulls had fed on the dying salmon but, when the mysterious depths of night began to gather, the scavenging birds fled the dark channel for the loftier realms of the ocean-like lake.

In wedge-shaped groups of ten to two hundred, their minds are made up and they are determined to make that five- to fifty-mile trip (depending on how far they had ventured down river during the day) to the great gathering place. They seem to be drawn together by some irresistible force and, like migrating waterfowl, take courage in the presence of their group. Whether with family or with strangers, they attach to individual units and laboriously flap toward a common destination.

There is a certain thrill to see that aerial display in the burst of sunset along a golden-tinged river, and know that high in the sky a living creature with a brain and covered with feathers directs its own passage in the world. To be free as a bird is indeed to be free of ground-anchored social entanglements that a clustered human community experiences. Perhaps in the bird's social hierarchy also there are structured levels of command and rank, but it is difficult to know what they say in that wildlife world we know little about.

I can imagine they say, "Harry, it's getting darker now and we'd better head back to the lake. There may be a coyote sneaking up along the riverbank."

Junior might say, "Oh mom, can't I have just a couple more bites of salmon? That trip back to the lake makes me tired."

"Here comes the Matthews family. Let's go with them."

"Up, up and away, Junior. Come on, Lily. Time to go. Be back early tomorrow." And away they go, like autumn leaves, over and over again, in predictable patterns as reliable as the coming of day.

AI don't know what birds say, or what language they use, other than the meaningless squawks, whistles, and chatter I hear. But somehow they know when to go, and those that flock together comprise an organized unit that leaves us breathless at the intelligent structure and directional accuracy they possess.

To many species of animals on earth, there is that social tendency to stick together, but there are some - like the lonely-looking wren I saw in the rocks, or the loner kingfisher that shies away from the spotlight - that prefer to avoid the groups. The mergansers that slowly change into winter plumage along the Feather River unite in groups, and often they take off on some errand, heads pointed forward like arrows as they flash through the air. Even the winter flocks of White-crowned Sparrows flutter through the thickets as a group, and the tiny Bushtits that swarm through the middle canopy are even more persistent at togetherness as they fleece the branches of insects.

Generally seen as lone gliders in the sky, vultures line the riverside in the fall, brought together by the abundance of dead salmon along the river shores. When that glut is all over, they will disperse to scattered surveillance of the soil until one finds something, and then there is again that crowded competition where food and survival is the name of the game.

As in William Cullen Bryant's poem "To a Waterfowl," it is the migratory duck and goose flights that are so magnificently exciting. When I was a boy on the Missouri farm, it was utterly thrilling to see a long wavering line of tired-looking geese threading southward from the unknown of faraway places. Then we would hear their honking cries, and we knew the season was advancing into the dark folds of winter, and the wild fowl had risen above it headed for glory in the sun. It is a thrill you will never forget, no matter how many autumns you see the procession, and how many springtimes you see new life come once again.

Of all those far-reaching flocks of wildfowl, I think it is the little Bufflehead duck that is most inspiring. Every year they silently slip into the rippling waters of the Feather River, as well as the city-surrounded waters of Lake Merritt in Oakland - at first a few bouncing around in the shallows where they dive in joyous profusion. Then a couple dozen arrive, and all winter - no matter how gray the day or stormy the weather - they endure in a lively style that suggests a love of life. The males are constantly strutting their fancy white headdresses and behaving as if it is good to be alive and share in a family affair. To a Bufflehead, the mission seems to be one of spreading good will in the world and exhibiting a feathered beauty that indeed adds to the freshness of the universe and hope of existence!

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the same song
And never stops at all.
              --Elizabeth Browning

© 2000 Rex Burress
November 6, 2000