Christmas Day, l998, dawned gray and cold, a carry-over from a series of freezing days in the Feather River Country. I eased through the icy neighborhood, and not a sound was stirring. Even the vocal dogs that always like to announce my passage were quiet, and only a few chimneys silently trailed smoke into the hazy atmosphere as if the hectic holiday flurry had taken its toll.
My first concern was the Anna's Hummingbird that hovered around the frozen sugar-water feeder in the faint early light. I rushed out to break the ice, and then retreated to watch the bird cautiously hang suspended on those unbelievably rapid blurred wings, surely, seemingly, unduly using up precious energy before refueling. However, it survived.
I took a quick walk down by the riverside, and again I saw those blessed bird wings in action, allowing the insect-eating Black Phoebe to hover over the water and snatch some aquatic morsel before it returned to its twig. I was watching the flycatcher's approach to survival at a time when few flies were flying!
Farther down the river, I marveled to see half a hundred Ring-billed Gulls fluttering like butterflies over the top of a giant cottonwood, snatching a food item I suspected to be tree buds. The scavengers were hungry and the dead salmon were almost gone. Only wings will save them, allowing access to unusual food, or enabling them to make a mass exodus to the ocean. Most of a bird's existence is spent in flying and gathering food.
Wings. What a marvelous flying ability certain animals - and angels - are blessed with!! During the Christmas season I again watched the intriguing movie, It's a Wonderful Life, and central to the plot is the effort that wingless George the Angel makes to earn his wings. I have often wondered about angels wearing those prominent wings in the depiction artists have given them, and I doubt that a pure angel really needs feathered propellers sticking out of their backs, but the symbolism of the special adaptation of birds having the ability to fly is noteworthy never the less.
Why fly? When I go out on my daily tromps and see the wide range of bird characters occupying their niches, I never cease to marvel that a mere animal like a bird has been able to grow wings and soar above the earth. Flying is the envy of mankind, and for countless ages the Neanderthal and Australopithecus primitives plodded along on the earth while the bird species zoomed through the skies. How did it all start? Why has a bird been able to develop wings and rise over the intellectual humans?
Just as some "call it evolution, and some call it God," as William Carruth said - some say birds and their flying abilities developed from reptiles that took to the air to survive ... millions of years ago ... so many that I cannot even begin to understand. When I look at the fossil of Archæopteryx, it is quite evident that the outlandish creature had wing characteristics even though reptilian features are also present. If the dinosaur era was the beginning point for bird flight, an amazing variety of flying wonders have since been discovered. There is no sure series of steps verifying the first bird, or the creation of different species, and despite all our computerized knowledge, the origin of flying birds could still be called evolution or God!
Part of the bird watcher's fascination with birds - and the elaborate efforts the binocular toters undergo to watch in the wind and the weather and on Audubon Christmas Bird Counts - has to do with that ability to fly through the air. So imagine my dismay when I heard that my own nephew's boy had killed a "red-headed" woodpecker in a boyish moment of "practicing to shoot pheasants someday!" I hope, soon, that the woodpecker waste way will be corrected, as I'm sure parental influence will point out the folly to shoot a songbird.
Childhood has its moments of excesses, and a certain hunter instinct prevails for a long time - sometimes right into adulthood - if you consider the large number of sportsmen out there in the swamps enduring the dangers for a duck! I must confess that during my eight-year-old days on the Missouri farm, I was not only a "Lone Ranger," but also a hunter as capable as Daniel Boone, and a tracker and a trapper, partly in imagination, and partly in reality. Eventually I became a bird protector and a Nature Knight, but I also had my moments in the barn rafters with a b-b gun shooting English Sparrows and pigeons. I might even have shot at a woodpecker, so obsessed was I with success as a shooter, but I eased out into the sporting way of observing regulations, and finally stopped hunting in favor of photography. It also has been embedded in my mind that nearly all woodpeckers and songbirds are protected, and you can be arrested and fined 500 dollars for shooting them!
So it is with an appreciation of bird color, grace, and flying ability that I take to the river or go down to Gray Lodge Refuge and watch the birds. The wintertime wonder of a hundred thousand snow geese in the air is a joy nearly everyone can thrill to, and for those who watch the Ruby-crowned Kinglet dash through the thickets on tireless, evangelical, ingenious wings will know an additional gratification rewarding for those "who in the love of nature hold communion with her visible forms."
© 1998 Rex Burress
December 25, 1998
This essay appears here with the permission of the Rotary Nature Center, where Rex writes a regular web feature called Oakland Naturally.