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Apprehension, As Told Through Bird Stories
By Joanna Patzig
And the good south wind still blew behind,
But no sweet bird did follow,
Nor any day for food or play
Came to the mariner's hollo!
- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Coleridge
One day, I think it was in June, something hit the back of my head out of nowhere. Scared, I turned around and a brown song bird was right there, hovering over me, frantically squawking and thrashing its wings. It took me a second to look away, and then I was running. It chased me, screaming, probably ready to peck my eyes out. I really sprinted, faster than I’ve run in a long time, until I was sure I’d lost it. I walked the rest of the way to work quickly, frequently looking over my shoulder.
I had to take a moment to try and put myself back together in the restroom, fix my ponytail. As I thought it over I remembered hearing her chicks before the impact. I guess I must have gotten close to the bitch's nest. I can still feel the weight of her body crashing into my hair.
Coincidently, I later found out that the same exact bird attacked my coworker at my other job:
“I hate birds. I hate them. I swear to God one attacked me,” Foster said, shaking his head. We live on the same block so I was immediately suspicious.
“Like at the corner of Leigh—"
“Oh my God, like a month ago?”
“Me, too! That fucking bird!!”
So, wow, probably that protective mother bird, with her nest right up next to the sidewalk, had been attacking passersby in the neighborhood for some time. Foster, rightly, was pissed about it. We were both upset, in fact, that day at work.
The bird on Leigh only came up because a bird flew into the kitchen when Foster opened the door to take out the trash. I ran to get a broom to chase it out, but it was too fast, plus I was afraid I’d hurt it. The bird bounced from wall to wall, super freaked out. It landed on a water pipe, its heart beating visibly, and then it flew through an open ceiling tile into the attic space that was otherwise closed off.
“Oh fuck,” we said.
When a bird is stuck indoors, they say you’re apparently supposed to turn the lights off and leave a window open so the bird will fly out towards the light. We tried it, and Foster went back up front to deal with customers. But I still had to get the dishes done, and I probably scared it with all the noise. Occasionally, I heard it tapping over me, or chirping in different corners of the room. There was nothing to do but lock up for the night, knowing that, unless it had escaped when I wasn’t looking, it was still up there. I heard it finally flew out two days later when I wasn’t there.
What a crazy episode in that bird's life. I wonder if it remembers. How significant are two days in the life of a bird? Most birds, with some notable exceptions, aren’t really known for intelligence. I wonder if, like mine, a bird's life is a series of hectic episodes that don’t fully connect to each other. Working at the bakery, and a few other part-time gigs, I often see both the sunrise and the sunset. Day and night seem less distinct with these odd hours, their boundaries seem questionable. My tired mind wants to see itself in every poor creature I meet.
But these blurry days still count, and that bird missed two, alone up there in the bakery. I remind myself that the aggressive bird in my neighborhood (I can’t comfortably identify either species—they were both tawny, but different) was just trying to protect her young.
I remember one of my professors saying that birds are kind of always a religious metaphor in poetry. That flying is so heavenly that birds are implicitly theological figures, symbols of transcendence to writers. Maybe I could have said the dive-bombing street bird was acting on a level distinct from mine (animal, devil?) but that bird crying in the attic while I washed dishes was so heart-wrenchingly human. I’m certain that its prayers were as unheard as mine that day, maybe still.
At some point, a friend sent me an article from the New York Times reporting that the Red-winged Blackbird has been abnormally aggressive this season. In fact, as temperatures rise, a lot of wildlife is becoming more irritable (think more predator attacks on humans, sharks at the beach.) I can relate; summer is so brutal in the city, the heat amplified by concrete. It’s beautiful, too, especially at the river, which makes it even harder to work. Harder to justify hours indoors, away from the cool water, for just eleven dollars each...
Despite my sympathy for these birds, and my impulse to project my feelings onto them, I start eyeing feathered animals with ever more wariness after those weird interactions. The more I pay attention to the birds, the more opaque their eyes seem, the harsher their songs sound. But they don’t sound as harsh as the traffic, although their presence is nearly as constant if you’re looking.
They watch from wires, unreadable. Their instincts propel them into heads, and windows, and attics—and I don’t really have anything better to do other than wonder what does this mean? And, oh no, what role do instincts play in my own life? I worry that my intellectual life is a façade for deeply ingrained ancestral panic and childhood injuries. I wonder, conversely, if I’ll be doomed by a lack of natural instincts as the temperature continues to raise the sea level. The birds are more sensitive to environmental change, but also their life spans are shorter. I will most likely be part of a generation witnessing a dying frenzy of natural disasters caused by incomprehensible carbon gas.
That’s not easy for me to say, but it seems possible. That Johnathan Franzen article in the New Yorker really hit me, as did Greta Thunberg's recent words following the climate strike. It’s time to wonder, time to attempt—what? Grief? Last ditch efforts to slow warming? And if so, how? By using my deep pool of wealth, free time, and personal influence garnered from working in food service? I know that sounds defeatist—and no, no, I haven’t given up. I try to model individual sustainability, advocate for structural changes with my fellow belabored students, and I do my breathing exercises. But come on. It feels like the hurricanes and storms and fires are worse every week. Of course the threat of global collapse is weighing on me.
For now, the birds are more aggressive, and imperceptibly, less common—although some songbirds, and even birds of prey, surround us in comforting normalcy, thriving on urban waste. On one of our weekly phone calls, my mom tells me that she’s started participating in a national survey of bird species. She’s identified over twenty species in her backyard. You wouldn’t know it from her little acre aviary in the Blue Ridge (where the birds stay year round, dependent on her generous and expertly placed bird feeders), but it seems that the birds are disappearing.
In the last fifty years, it’s estimated that 29% of birds in North America, even common species like sparrows, have disappeared. Three billion birds less than there were in the 1970s, and less then than there was pre-colonization. Scholars whisper about texts from the 18th century reporting that pigeons could black out the sky for miles, and about the extreme importance of pollinators. I realize that maybe all I’ve ever known are comparatively “Silent Springs,” as Rachel Carson wrote, seasons with a conspicuous absence of nature.
It’s hard to predict what will happen in the Anthropocene, what can survive what, who the indicator species are. What I know, right now, is that I am 22, which is old enough to have had my heart deeply broken and to worry about insurance bills. I lead a privileged life in the painful era of late capitalism. I quit my other gig, and these days I just work at a bakery, counting down the days until I graduate from college.
The summer months are a humid haze, still humming now that school’s begun. The hot season seems suspended over some kind of iminent and unpredictable change, the days rolling by on an incline that could be a cliff. September, and the days are still hot. A part of me still anxiously waits for the bird to fly out of the ceiling, and another part waits for the geese to start flying past for winter. It’s like waiting for the clock to start moving on a long shift, when you start to feel suspicious of time itself, but this time it’s pulling me in different directions.
I wait, watching for new Southern birds on the horizon, new species that will call this city their territory as we’re all displaced and rearranged by the changing climate. I know that change will probably be incremental, endemic, unfair, and strange; I know this and I know nothing; I continue to wait as if the future were a finite thing, arriving like a bird on a wire, a season, a message, an instinctual reaction, or just a vacation, or (please, God) a job offer. I would welcome any kind of direction, any harbinger of anything at all. Mostly, I hope for an Albatross, but the wrens and blue jays and finches don’t oblige.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.