Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The Birds

I spent some time over the Christmas break watching crows in the trees. There were other birds too, but crows were the only ones I could definitely identify, the others being simply yellow beak, fat grey bird, multicolored parrot and other unscientific appellations. Ignorance had its consolations because it enabled me to see them for the first time, without preconceptions. The most striking thing about the birds hereabouts was how dependent they seemed upon the trees. The vastness of the sky, the distance to the horizon -- all the poetic things we associate with birds -- seemed wholly irrelevant to their existence and they seemed to ignore them altogether, except in one respect I will come to in a moment.

Walking under the tree canopy, one soon got the sense of moving through subtle currents of wind and sound. The unseen creatures in the high branches were calling to each other, sometimes from fixed positions but more often on the move. The Doppler shifts in the squawks, twitters and trills were unmistakable. It was tempting to anthropomorphize the signals and call this sound a warning and that an invitation, or still another sound a cue to navigation, but that would have been building on ignorance and I let the datum go at that. It emphasized the most uncanny thing about birds. Unless one looked for them or saw them flash by they were largely invisible. And yet they were there.

The key to finding them was to be alert for movement. Foliage, though apparently tossed at random by the winds, nevertheless moved with a systematic, though complex pattern, and the human eye, or at least mine, could pick out the anomalous movement at the heart of which there was often a bird. Often but not always, as the knuckle in the leaves was sometimes caused by a falling twig or a microeddy of wind. But where its cause was avian, the eye could pick it out of the background noise with amazing celerity, allowing closer inspection with a pair of 7x21s, which with practice one could snap onto the point in space where the anomaly appeared. Then the unseen coveys became slowly detectable. It became a matter of slipping through the wood with a kind of stalking gait, head on a smooth swivel, looking for cues. My walk became unselfconsciously predatory and strangely appropriate to the task at hand.

I realized at once that the birds were moving tactically too. They never flew around aimlessly, as one would think. Rather they sprinted from point to point and where they came to rest after a flashing flight, they nearly always disappeared in a cloud of stillness, so that unless one had been tracking carefully, they vanished into the background noise. Some at least, would pull out of a shallow dive to enter the foliage from below the canopy. That made sense. Any hawks circling above would lose sight of their terminal trajectory. But from below I had an advantage. By positioning myself so that approaching birds would have to cross a barrier of sky, I could do what the eagle couldn't: create a vision trap against the contrast of the deep blue.

Earlier, I mentioned how indifferent the birds were to the poetry of the sky, excepting one circumstance. They were deadly afraid of it. Even while hunting through the branches for insects and fruit, they appeared to keep their flanks covered by a network of branches, as if to interpose defense between themselves and any predatory attack. Yet they were still wary. The birds I saw would often abandon a feeding ground abruptly then return to it after the space of a few minutes, as if withdrawing to a watching position, and then returning when convinced the coast was clear. Yet all these tactical evolutions had to be performed with under strict energy management. In the end, they would have to eat more calories than they burned or die of slow starvation as the cost of escaping predation.

The Al Qaeda must be like that too. Without pushing the analogy too far, these apparently wraithlike terrorists are chained to their feeding grounds, to which they must at all costs return. While still they are nearly invisible, though they chatter constantly in incomprehensible syllables. Yet to one watchful of their movements, moving quietly in the shadows beneath them, they are plainly visible. And feeding uneasily, they keep one eye cocked ever upward for the eagle.