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Stories

Early Bird

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It is the sixth of March, and the first Mountain Bluebird is back.  He is sitting forlornly  on a fence rail, it is snowing hard, and the temperature is close to minus five degrees Fahrenheit.  Maybe he is sitting there wondering just where it is he has gotten to in his travels.  Maybe he thinks he has been overeager in his resolve to fly north to his old stomping grounds.  Maybe he really is forlorn, but I doubt it.  He and his kind do this every year.  It may look like winter, but in fact, it is spring.

A friend of mine tells me that although everyone loves springtime because of its promise of great things to come, the problem in the northern climates is that spring is just that— a promise.  Sometimes promises are not kept, and the problem with spring, she says, is that it gets your hopes up.  Spring is hope untested, she maintains, and it can make you greedy.  She says that she gets so excited seeing a new bird or a different flower that she tends to get a little giddy about it all.  She says it ain’t good to get carried away like that.

I can understand that.  I suffer from the same volatile inclination.  It’s hard not to get in a hurry this time of year.  Everything I see around me seems to be in a hurry, too.  Emotionally, I have never understood why the Mountain Bluebird always seems to return to my neck of the woods in the first couple of weeks of March.  It’s still the dead of winter here, and we commonly receive our greatest accumulation of snowfall in the month of March.  When I see a bluebird out there flitting around in the middle of a blizzard it’s hard not to think the silly bird should have stayed in Utah a while longer.

He’s in a rush, of course. Not for the same reasons as I am, but in a rush, nonetheless.  He needs to be.  Looking at nature through the narrow perspective of my own understanding, I see only what I want to see, and in this case I see what I take to be a pretty bird in a hurry for no good reason.  He is not, however, hanging around for kicks.  This is his summer home, and he’s going to have a lot of company.  He has arrived early in hopes of getting first dibs on the best territory around.  The lady bluebirds will not show up for another three or four weeks, but when they do this early bird wants to show his prospective mates the best country around in which to raise a family.  Like the males of every other species this birdie has only one thing on his mind—sex.

I have seen a lot of males of the human species do a lot of goofy things to attract the attention of the opposite sex, but I have yet to see one just sitting out in a snowstorm hoping a woman will come along.  I suppose that’s what guys who climb mountains in ferocious weather are up to.  Young Eskimos plying the waters of some frigid bay in their kayaks are up to the same thing, as are those men who work outside in all manner of dismal weather.  Farmers and ranchers, loggers and construction workers, and the men who crawl up power poles in sub-zero temperatures are displaying their prowess as good providers.  “We can do it” is the message, and at least they appear to be doing something.

The bluebird, however, seems to be doing nothing aside from waiting.  In actuality, he is a busy little boy.  He and his fellows are staking their territories.  They play an endless game of I Chase you and You Chase Me, and after some time one generally gets to be the winner.  He stays where he is, waiting for the females to arrive and be impressed, and the others move on to try again somewhere else.  So what the bluebirds are doing, really, is just what most males of any species spend a lot of time doing, which is showing off.

In humans this behavior often appears to be laughable, but the so-called lower species do not seem so preposterous.  We think of them, I suppose, as instinctually more basic than humans, and therefore their behavior lessFemale Mountain Bluebird comical.  Some young graduate student in ornithology should do a study on this.  Maybe female birds find the antics of their prospective mates to be as amusing as do some human females.

In reality this is not a laughing matter unless all of life is just a rather large joke.  Some are inclined to this view, but I doubt that the birds are.  They are involved in serious behavior, and whether such behavior is laughable from our point of view or not, they have no other choice.  Humans are able to make fun of themselves, or perhaps more accurately, of each other, but the implicit demands of living and reproducing can never be eliminated or negated by our own species’ capacity for mockery.  Laughter comforts us, I suppose, but Mother Nature seems beyond amusement.

If springtime seems to us a time of hope and expectation, it is, if anything, the most difficult time of year for most of what we see that engenders hope and expectation.  For birds, springtime with its poor supplies of food exacerbated by the struggles of reproduction is the most demanding of all seasons.  To us the birds seem so cheery as the flit about and sing.  Certainly they are that as we see them through the filter of our own perceptions.

However, the territorial song of the males is not simply an exclamation of joy.  It primarily serves the dual function of territorial proclamation directed at other males, and of mate attraction directed toward females.  The song warns other males to stay the hell away while inviting females to join the singer.  The singer is both tough guy and lover at the same time.  What stimulates pleasure in the human listener is for the birds only the beginning of their troubles.  Once the female bluebird has chosen a suitable mate, the two of them will usually produce two broods of three to six young over the course of the next four to six months.  This will include in each case a number of days in setting up their household, a number of days of egg production, a couple of weeks of incubation, about three weeks of feeding the young in the nest, and another twenty-five days teaching them the ropes after they have left the nest.  Throughout this time they must find enough food, often in less than ideal conditions, to feed themselves as well as the perpetually hungry young.  In addition, they spend a good deal of time fending off numerous predators, and other birds like flickers, swallows, wrens, and starlings who would like to use the bluebird nest hole for themselves.  The bluebirds rarely take a break during the daylight hours.  Then after much time and effort expended in this process, the young may be eaten by a hawk, and one of the adults killed by a passing car.  Such is life in the wild.

From the relative safety of modern life, at least in some places, nature has increasingly been perceived as a rather benign backdrop in front of which the ultimately important business of human life is conducted.  Nature is seen as sweetly perfect.  Looking at a bluebird, we see only loveliness, and a fresh flower is goodness personified.  My friend says that sometimes springtime makes her feel so glorious that she feels as if she is in a Disney movie, like Uncle Remus with the bluebird on his shoulder.  “I tend to get a little goofy,” she says.

She appreciates these small moments of beauty, she adds, but realizes that any one thing is only as beautiful as we perceive it.  She reminds me from time to time that in the greater scheme of things death, too, is beautiful, but it is a beauty that our natural emotions prevent us from appreciating.  We have spent far too much time, she says, trying to stay alive in the face of disheartening odds to find much pleasure in contemplating that definitive experience.

Nature is not, she thinks, a refuge from the difficulties of human existence.  It is not something we can turn to for comfort when the pain of our own lives becomes unbearable because the pain of life is everywhere.  “Look at the bluebirds,” she says.  “I suppose we think that because bluebirds seem to live socially less complex and confusing lives that somehow they do not suffer.  How can we know that? I think that when we see them we see ourselves.”

That makes sense to me, and she is preaching to the choir.  All life is here to live and reproduce, and in some sense all life suffers equally.  Flowers sprout only to freeze and die in a cold snap.  A bluebird searching for grubs to kill and eat is itself killed and eaten by a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  The hawk is killed by disease two months later.  The story goes on and on.  Is it a story of joy or of sorrow?  I don’t know.  Those ideas are constructs of the human imagination, and perhaps that is all they are.  Ideas with which we entertain ourselves, but which in the end are of no consequence to creation as a whole.  We are like the birds singing from the treetops, telling ourselves and each other that we are here, and that we count.  Trying to make sense of things is what humans do.  The bluebird shows up in the middle of a blizzard in early March, and we wonder why. He does what he must do, and so do we.

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