by Sean Arthur Joyce
1. Mohawk the Starling Gets Personal
Today I met Mohawk the Starling.* He lives—for now—at Carol Pettigrew’s BEAKS (Bird Emergency and Kare Society) in a small neighbourhood known as Blueberry, just steps away from the banks of the Columbia River near Castlegar, British Columbia. He was brought to the shelter by caring people when they discovered Mohawk’s mother had died. So they brought him and his siblings to Carol—an extremely lucky break for these birds. Shortly after the starlings were released, Mohawk—named for the stripe on his head when he was brought in—returned to BEAKS and has remained there since.
Anne and I were invited to step into the tiny room where smaller injured birds recover—a robin, siskins, an evening grosbeak, a snow bunting, a violet-green swallow. And Chester the Robin—more about him later. ** (see Part 2) At first I found the concentrated smell of bird droppings overpowering. Gradually this olfactory shock eased, but meanwhile my entry had caused quite a stir amongst the birds. I took my hat off at Carol’s request as apparently this can upset them.
Right away Mohawk flew to Carol and landed on her shoulder, chattering excitedly at her ear. He flew between her shoulder and his perch a few times. But then he landed on my forearm and began chattering at me. At first I found the sensation of the bird’s feet on my bare arm a bit disconcerting. But I knew instinctively the thing to do was not to flinch, not to give in to fear. When Mohawk began ‘preening’ me or prospecting for bugs in the folds of my shirt and in my glasses case in my pocket, I had to master the same urge to flinch. I felt that cold tingle we sometimes feel on the back of the neck when we’re surprised by something. But I held steady.
As if sensing that I was safe, Mohawk stayed on my arm, sometimes moving to my shoulder to prospect behind my ears, but always staying close. And the excited chatter! It was as if a small child, suddenly realizing it has someone eager to listen to its tale, talks non-stop, telling its story freely and openly. And the sheer range of vocalizations! Carol said Mohawk is so smart that “what he hears today he’ll repeat tomorrow.” And he did indeed make a sound that was suspiciously like Carol’s laugh. She tells me he even says “ridiculous,” a favourite expression of hers.
After a short time Mohawk and I were on intimate terms and he looked right into my eyes as he chattered and sang. We played a game—he would make a sound, I would imitate it, then he’d make a different sound and I’d imitate that, as if he were testing me. Then the game was reversed and I made clicking sounds or birdlike whistles, waiting for him to imitate. He wasn’t quite as fast a learner as I am but I could hear him getting some first drafts pretty close. As a writer and aspiring musician I can tell you that’s pretty damn good. As Carol reminded me again, Mohawk will have it down by this time tomorrow.
I wish I’d had the foresight to bring my digital recorder because I can hardly begin to describe the range of sounds this bird made. Some were typically birdlike trills and snatches of whistling song. Yet other sounds were inexplicable in a bird of this kind. A purring sound. Guttural sounds rolled like pebbles in the throat. A sound something like a cross between a baby bird and a kitten. Snatches of words he’s picked up from his human caregivers, words I couldn’t quite make out, or that had yet to fully form. Corvid biologist John Marzluff, in his book Gifts of the Crow, writes: “When we overhear crows singing softly to themselves, we wonder if they derive pleasure simply by listening to the sounds they can make. So much of what we hear from crows or ravens is inexplicable. They ring like bells, drip like water, and have precise rhythm. They sing alone or in great symphonies. Some of their noise could be music.” It’s possible exceptional birds like Mohawk are doing the same.
I began to realize that this bird was not about to let me leave easily. His attention span was concentrated, focused on me. He might shift position, from one arm to the other, or to my shoulders for a quick reconnaissance of my ears. But always he came back to looking up at me and continuing his dialogue. I kept my body still throughout, partly of course to avoid stepping on injured birds unable to fly yet. But mostly I wanted this amazing moment not to end. I wanted Mohawk to know that he was safe; he was heard. And did he ever know it!
I had found a friend. I only felt guilty that I would very soon have to leave him. I joked that he was trying to adopt me. That he was telling me the whole story of his mother’s death, his siblings alone and hungry, of the kind people who rescued them, of getting to know Carol over the past winter. An audience! Exactly what any storyteller wants—needs, even. But was it a joke? Or was he in fact reaching across the veil that normally separates us from the animal world?
I’ve often wondered these days if animals aren’t reaching out to us. And reaching across other species barriers to cooperate. Almost every day on the Internet someone posts a video or a Facebook entry about animals who are normally enemies forming friendships. Like the crow who became playmate to a kitten, rolling and tumbling together in the grass. The two became inseparable. And like the doe who saw me looking at her through my window and came over to the house to ask for a treat. I’d been putting out some of my old apples from last year’s harvest so they wouldn’t eat the birdseed. That deer knew immediately, not only was I no threat, I’d feed her.
It’s as if birds and animals are sensing that our world is in a critical situation right now. And saying to us: ‘We’re not so different, you and I. We have families. We struggle to survive day after day, as you do. We have feelings. Some of us even feel grief when one of us dies. Can’t we get together to save our world?’ Just as author Marta Williams says in Learning Their Language—Intuitive Communication with Animals and Nature: “The Hopi prophecies for our time suggested that if people could experience a shift in consciousness and reconnect with animals, nature, and spirit, much of the predicted destruction could be avoided.”
We are at least breaking the falsehood of animals and birds as Creation’s automatons, the Cartesian duality that sundered us so tragically from Nature. It stands to reason that every creature on this Earth carries in its bones the wisdom of thousands of years of evolution and experience. We too as humans are not just in the environment, we are the environment. When we grow up in a certain landscape it becomes a part of us. Even if we don’t live there still, it remains with us. In order to function in a material world, creatures need a nervous system to warn of pain, give us cues for eating, drinking, etc. In other words, that creature must feel in order to survive. And while there are differing levels of feeling just as of intelligence, the fact is that animals and birds are feeling—and intelligent—creatures with us in this world.
And so it pained me to have to leave Mohawk. Yet I know that even Carol will have to say goodbye to him too. Just as she has had to do hundreds of times in her decades of caring for injured birds. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Shakespeare wrote, and death is part of life. We have to learn to let go or we suffer, we remain trapped. The last thing I want is a bird trapped in a cage—neither a literal one nor my spirit trapped in a cage of my own making. As the Buddhists say, the condition of being is suffering. To fight against that fact is pointless. If only I had the decades of spiritual practice to fully absorb that spiritual gem. But I’m working on it….
*Starlings are not native to North America—they were introduced by well meaning Europeans to New York City in the 1890s. They have since spread across the continent. Always a dangerous strategy, introducing non-native species often leads to them becoming invasive species that can decimate an environment and cause other species to decline.
2. Breaking the Language Barrier and The Wisdom of Play
In the meantime, Mohawk the Starling will bask in Carol’s almost round-the-clock care, even as Carol herself struggles with emphysema. Determined soul that she is, the oxygen tank she’s forced to drag around isn’t stopping her, even as the bills pile up. Donations these days just don’t seem to be keeping up with expenses. The hurt of four-plus years of the Great Recession is finally hitting home and charities everywhere are suffering. Her assistant Lynette is young and energetic and must sometimes work at her paid position at BEAKS even when the money runs out. It’s a constant struggle for Carol to continue rescuing these birds.
She tells me she had quite the battle with naturalists in the early days. They told her she was foolish for rescuing birds; that they should be allowed to die in the wild and provide food for other animals. “I said to them, they are not dying in the wild. They’re dying from cats—our cats—from highways, from power lines, from windows. We have a responsibility to them.” It is we who have altered the environment to suit ourselves, and thereby created things that distort the normal mortality rates of birds and other animals. Hundreds of thousands of birds die every year simply from crashing into office tower windows. Many are disoriented by our electromagnetically saturated urban environments—birds navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field. Overlap that with the thousands of other signals we’re shooting around and no wonder they often can’t navigate properly anymore. Our fascination with wireless technology is creating another layer of pollution that is hazardous not just to birds, but to all life.
In Rachel Carson’s now legendary book Silent Spring, she mused on the strange horror of a landscape where no birds sang because it had been poisoned by pesticides. Already we have driven thousands of species of various kinds to extinction. And with climate change, we will drive many more to extinction. The savannahs of Africa once were black with herds of millions of animals. The same with the North American prairies. Now these herds are a tiny fraction of their historic size. As ecologist Allan Savory points out, this may in fact be driving desertification as much as climate change. All those animals pounding across the savannah didn’t destroy the soil, they broke it up so seeds could take root. First just one, then another, then another…. And soon the bare plain is no longer bare but lush and green.
The Hopi injunction to reconnect with animals, birds and Nature generally is thus given added resonance. Of course, people who work with these creatures on a daily basis already know that. Carol Pettigrew has worked with bird rehabilitation in some form for 40 years now. She is a naturalist’s dream, just waiting for some canny biologist to pick her brains. Carol is quite aware of the risks of some birds ‘imprinting’ on their human caregivers, particularly if they are brought in as babies. She’s had a few birds ‘imprinted’ or bonded with her, including a crow named Muffin who has never left the facility and has become a devoted companion. This is not unusual with crows, according to Marzluff’s research. “She became madly in love with me instantly and it was mutual,” says Carol. “I have to be careful with crows because they imprint so easily.” Mohawk the Starling, on the other hand, is an exception to his kind. “I’ve never seen starlings imprint like Mohawk has; it’s the first time in 40 years I’ve seen that.”
Ravens by contrast are far less likely to bond with humans. Yet Carol recalls getting to know a raven who eventually felt safe enough to land on her shoulder. It was from this raven she learned what she calls the ‘eye language’ many birds use. “First you close both eyes, then your right eye, then your left eye; it’s a trust exercise,” she explains. “When you do all three steps you can do anything with that bird.” Carol says any bird that ‘beaks’ (‘kisses’) will respond to eye language. That includes flickers, red-tailed hawks, ravens, crows and eagles. She once proved it to a sceptical naturalist who brought her a red-tailed hawk that was soon—literally—eating out of her hand.
New discoveries in the study of birds, particularly corvids—the crow and raven family—are showing that they often engage in play. As Marzluff explains in Gifts of the Crow, just a couple of decades ago the very notion was ridiculed by scientists. Unless it served some evolutionary function, a bird or animal would not waste energy on play. But then as we studied humans and got better at mapping the neural circuits in the brain, we realized that play activity in human children was indeed creating vital new neural pathways. Best of all, it fosters joy, which is far more than the sum of its chemical and neurological parts. Why not birds and animals too? “Many birds play,” explains Marzluff. “In a third of all orders of birds, voluntary, novel, immediately unnecessary, repeated, stress-free movements, interactions with objects, or games among individuals have been recorded.” Carol says in her experience it’s the female crows who are the most active and playful. “The females need to be busy all the time.”
As Anne is always reminding me, why could a bird not simply sing because it feels joy in the warmth of the spring sun? The myriad choirs of birdsong I hear in the spring, in every key and mode bounding from the hillside, make me believe she’s right. And might Mohawk the Starling indeed have been overjoyed to have someone to hear his story, even if I couldn’t understand it?
The point is, to be there, to listen, and offer what we can of ourselves.
** Chester the Robin is another of BEAKS’ resident birds. When brought in to Carol 12 years ago, his wing was broken. Although his wingbone was set by a veterinarian, Chester was not able to recover the ability to fly. But he developed a unique ability instead—a kind of trauma counsellor to other robins. When young robins come in—especially those like him who are unable to fly—they are often traumatized by having to remain on the ground. Chester interacts with them and soon their frantic cries diminish, helping them adjust to their new environment while they heal.
About the Author: Sean Arthur Joyce is a well-known writer, poet and journalist in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. Joyce has been a freelance journalist since 1990, and currently works as a reporter/editor for the Valley Voice, one of the last independently owned newspapers in the province. He is the author of two books on local history and two books of poetry. Joyce lives in the small village of New Denver, BC near Valhalla Provincial Park on Slocan Lake.