Tragically, McSweeney’s doesn’t have quite enough hard-core birders in the audience to appreciate this. But I thought you guys would!
Look, you guys, I know it’s been a rough start to the year for everyone. Some of you have been counting on federal funding or habitat protection that now looks shaky; some of you have mates who never made it back from migration; some of you just can’t catch enough fish. I myself picked up a tick while looking for warblers on Long Island during spring migration and had to do a course of antibiotics that played merry havoc with my digestive system, if you know what I mean. And I think you do. Especially those of you with an all-fish diet. Anyway, what I’m saying is we’ve all been under a lot of stress.
And you know that I know that how you react to stress is a matter of instinct. I have younger sisters! I understand the urge to peck one’s siblings until they back off and let you eat all of that delicious dead vole. It’s not an indictment of your parenting skills that in a year like this whoever hatched last is probably going to starve to death slowly while you look on with supreme and unknowable indifference.
I get that good nest sites are at a premium, whether you’re in the market for a box along a bluebird trail in Iowa or a ledge overlooking pigeon-rich Central Park. Again, I know you’re just doing what you gotta do. Drag some other bird bodily out of a hollow tree and thrash the feathers off them? Steal and eat their eggs? Mate with a good-genes intruder on the sly while your dude is off searching for twigs and straw? If it works, it works, and it’s been working for you guys for millions of years up until now.
But for millions of years up until now you haven’t had an international audience of thousands of highly social mammals with their own particular quirks and evolutionary strategies watching your every move around the clock. And I have tried – believe me, I’ve tried! – to explain you to them, using cliches about ‘nature’s way’ and ‘the circle of life’ so they can maintain a pleasant dualism, a sense of distance. I have tried to explain that predation is not ‘mean’ and brood parasitism is not ‘evil’ and that most extra-pair matings have little or nothing to do with their personal feelings about that ho Donna in reception and what she did with their date to the Christmas party. There’s only so much I can do. They want an authentic nature experience, but a relatable authentic nature experience. They want this as instinctively as you want that dead vole. Supreme and unknowable indifference isn’t really what most of these people are into.
Now when you’re working at your best, overcoming the odds to incubate your eggs through a snowstorm or nudging your fledgling into their first tentative forays off the nest or adopting a baby from a completely different species as your own (that was top-notch work, guys, really excellent), you totally have them into you. Grandmas and little kids, bored office workers, students and teachers – when things go right your audience is huge and passionate. They leave comments on your videos and give you cute names like Ozzie the Osprey and Wisdom the Albatross. Next they start caring about things like habitat preservation and heavy metal pollution and climate change. We all need this.
So just… just try to keep that in mind, ok? Throw your smaller chicks a bone once in awhile. It can be a literal bone. Preen your mates on-camera and keep the side-piece action in a blind spot. Maybe poop out of camera range too – although to be fair, a lot of the elementary school classes love the toilet humor. Eat each other, sure, but don’t inflict gory and gratuitous deaths on each other over pissy little territorial disputes. It makes people feel like they have to choose sides, and who wants to choose sides between the noble bald eagle and the majestic great horned owl or whatever?
It’s just for the summer. Once you get back to Belize, you can be yourselves.
Of course, this is fiction. I didn’t actually pick up any ticks this spring!
Feature image by Sarah Gutowsky courtesy of USFWS