Birds Of A Feather & Things With Wings

When I was five years old, my family was at an outdoor barbecue in Amherst, Massachusetts, when a crow suddenly flew out of the skies, landed and perched on my head. Since that unlikely event, I have had a natural affinity for crows and ravens. I have learned to imitate their calls and can converse with them, though I am never sure what we are saying, other than my loud cawing version of, “Hello Crow.” They do respond, and often fly overhead to see if I am holding one of their members hostage, something I would never do to any of my avian tribe. Crows and ravens are the most intelligent birds and are legendary in story and myth for their shape shifting abilities. Ravens are the only birds I have ever seen flying upside down by choice. Your totem animal will clearly reveal itself to you when the time is right, as mine did for me. It is a grave injustice of nature that we humans do not yet have wings.

I was sitting on top of one of the highest Pinnacles at Pinnacles National Park in northern California, admiring the vast views in all directions when three juvenile condors suddenly alighted on a rocky crag 50 feet away from us, across a steep cliff face. Condors are some of the largest birds in the world, with 10’ wingspans.

Two of the birds we were watching were males and the other was a young female whose affection they were competing for. The males had bright red heads and a long neck covered with iridescent pink feathers. The males took turns hopping up to the female and sticking her entire head into their beak, mouth and neck, an odd version of a full bodied, avian French Kiss. This went on for several minutes, and I was so amazed and taken with it that I forgot to take photos of the Condor Love Display, though I had my camera right by my side. When I finally picked up the camera, they flew away into a sky so deep and blue that it slowly drank them up as they disappeared into the vast distances above the red rocks and the emerald green spring hills off in the distance, searching for something dead to feast on.

I was sitting on my back porch, enjoying a sunny April day with my cat James Brown purring contentedly on my lap when he suddenly hammered out at the air and struck a humming bird as it was flying by. I caught it in my hand as it fell down, where it died of a broken neck moments later, nestled between my palms. It was incredibly warm and seemed unbelievably small and fragile for such a quick, vibrant, flying creature. Much of the visual volume of a hummingbird is in its frenetic, whirring, whirling wings.

Both my brother Peter and my friend Rob were able to catch hummingbirds in their hands that came in through open doors and couldn’t find their way out of the house without a helping hand. Both birds were successfully returned to outdoor life unharmed, unlike the unfortunate fly-by victim of James Brown, the feline avian assassin.

“The cormorants would dive down on a leash and bring a fish back to their masters.”

My mother told me this story of working, symbiotic, inter species friendships and relationships from her childhood in China when I was young. Every night, as she tucked me into bed I would ask her to “Tell me about when you were little.” I was always fascinated by the stories of her young life in far away China, in a life so different from mine where I went to school at P.S. 125, an inner city, public school in the heart of Harlem in the 1950’s; a place I would not have dreamed of sending my children to under any circumstances. 

She would weave fantastic tales of her father bargaining with the King of Thieves, monks who had lost their earthly desire to live and had been naturally mummified and then covered with gold leaf and set upright in the lotus position in a cave for the rest of eternity on the banks of the Yanktzee River. From that same river she told stories of seeing fishermen who had trained cormorants on leashes that would dive down into the river and catch fish and bring them back up to their master’s boats. The birds had removable rings around their necks which prevented them from swallowing large fish, which were caught in the bird’s throat and which the fisherman would remove before sending them back down underwater on another fishing expedition. The birds were able to catch and swallow smaller fish. 

Cormorant fishing skills were practiced in ancient Egypt, Peru. Korea and India, but the strongest traditions were in China and Japan, where my mother had seen this ancient art in action. This method is not common today, since more efficient methods of catching fish have been developed, but it is still practiced as a cultural tradition.

The eye of the crow is dark,

And wide as the plains of China.

Be like a Crow:

Collect shiny things.

Hop up and down the street for no apparent reason.

Scream loudly when you see your friends.

“The dodo never had a chance. He seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of becoming extinct and that was all he was good for. … I’m not blaming the Dodo but he was a mess. He had an ugly face with a large hooked beak, a tail in the wrong place, wings too small … and a very prominent stomach.”

– Will Cuppy

I have wandered in over the waves of the words to the temple of thought.

       And then I hear outside, over the actual waves,

The small, perfect voice of the loon.

Mary Oliver

Hark, hark! the lark at Heaven’s gate sings!

William Shakespeare

Dream tonight of peacock tails, diamond fields and spouting whales.
Ills are many, blessing few, but dreams tonight will shelter you.

Herman Melville

“It doesn’t matter how you were born, what matters is who you become.”

Hans Christian Andersen – The Ugly Duckling

I am Strong.

I am Focused.

I am Silent.

• William Shakespeare

Be like a swan, paddling madly underneath the water but appearing so graceful and elegant on the surface.

The foxes have their holes.

The birds of the air have their nests

But the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.

• Jesus

The bird has a nest

The spider a web.

Man: Love and friendship.

• William Blake

A heart without dreams is like a bird without feathers

• Suzy Kassem

Charles Baudelaire

• Billy Bob Thorton

– Orville Wright

Compassionate Advice from the Dali Lama: