Essay: Bird in the Hand

The belief that people hold stewardship over Earth and over every life form and square acre upon its face is taken nearly for granted in the LDS culture. But do LDS understand that stewardship, or have we merely assumed understanding, as we once assumed understanding of the relationship between blacks and priesthood? Are we fully conscious of the needs of other species in our charge, as good stewards ought to be? Are we imaginative enough to visualize the possibilities of faithful stewardship, which may include providing other species with opportunities for “¦ oh, I don’t know “¦ progression, maybe? “Bird in the Hand” is the first in a series of essays about encounters with animals (and a few plants) that left me with more questions than answers about human responsibility in the natural world.

In July 2005 my brother Jim and I threw camping gear into his new Toyota 4Runner and headed for a canyon in the San Rafael Swell. The object of our trip: try out the 4Runner on real four-wheel-drive roads and see petroglylphs at the canyon’s mouth. We arrived at the canyon at dusk and helped each other wrestle up tents in a whipping canyon wind.

After admiring the rock art the next morning we decided to explore the canyon and looked for possible routes in. To our left lay a boulder field, littered with obstacles too imposing for my taste. “We’re not going that way,” I said, but as I turned away, my eye caught rapid movement just at the edge of my field of vision. “What’s that?”

Jim didn’t answer, just looked. Focusing, I made out long black wings beating at the canyon’s wall, and flashes of white. Some black and white bird fluttered near the ground. Black and white is an unusual color scheme for birds living in sandstone deserts. And what was it doing? Curiosity drew me toward the bird. It appeared to be trying to scrabble up the canyon wall, but its feet clutched ineffectively at the dirt and rock. It beat its wings furiously trying to help itself up.

Absorbed in its mysterious task the bird didn’t notice my approach. It appeared swallow-like in body, with long, sharp, angled wings of the sort that slice air. But drawing closer, I saw those wings had a fourteen- to sixteen-inch-wingspan–too broad for any swallows I knew of. “This must be some member of the swift family,” I mused. The bird continued fluttering against the wall, prompting me to wonder if it was sick or injured or maybe old. Sometimes it slipped down the cliff face and pushed itself back up on its “elbows,” crawling in the way I’ve seen grounded bats crawl.

Wonder built in my brain, welling up, until in an irrepressible act I asked, “What are you doing?”

I didn’t expect a reply, but many humans aren’t conscious of the compelling effects of spoken-aloud questions, either upon each other or upon animals. Marketers know something about it. They use questions as hooks: “Mind if I ask you a question?” “What cell phone service do you have?” Before many people can stop themselves they answer, opening the door to the sales pitch.

But well-asked questions have music to them, a directness of intent marked by tone and tilts in the voice throughout and then again at the end. The words WHAT are you DO-ing have rhythm. Many animals know rhythm. It’s in their feet and wings–it plays in their heartbeats. Their own languages depend upon rhythms and variations in rhythms. Some studies assert that rhythm, phrasal repetitions, even rhyme act as mnemonic devices for species that employ them in their songs. Why might that be? Because at the very least, rhythm rises from the depths of the creature, from its organs and other very basic structures of the body. In all singing species, the singer is the song.

At the noise of my question, the bird stopped scrabbling. Looking over its shoulder it identified me as the source of the sounds it had just heard and turned to face me. With a drunken walk it hobbled over till it stood between my feet.

Looking down at the bird, whose head tilted up looking, I supposed, at my face, I asked, “What do you want?” The bird began to scrabble at the leg of my jeans in the same way it had the rock wall.

Years of experience with small things tugging at my pant leg or trying to climb up my body prompted me to lean over and put my hand in front of it. I bumped my finger against its underside the way I’ve seen cockatiel owners encourage their birds to step onto their fingers. Still, I was surprised when the bird stepped into my hand, folded up its long, black wings and settled against my open palm.

A bird in the hand weighs nothing. If I had closed my eyes I might have doubted that the very slight weight I felt against the skin of my palm was anything at all–flight itself, perhaps, come to rest for a moment, dimpling the skin of my open hand. What is the worth of such weightlessness? For birds born to navigate upper regions of the breathable air for extended periods of flight, as I found out later this one was, such insubstantiality translates into boundless wealth.

Overcome with wonder and the intoxication of physical contact with a willing wild bird, I could barely focus on its face. But something seemed wrong with its eyes, or maybe the bird, weakened by its struggle with the cliff, had merely closed its eyes as it rested in my hand. I couldn’t tell for certain what I saw in that black head with mere glints for eyes. Carrying the bird back to the rock face, I lifted it higher up on the wall where it had seemed to be trying to go. It stepped onto the ground there, turned, spread its wings, and sailed back to the canyon floor.

It returned to me. Again I lifted it to the rock shelf; again it turned and sailed down. It didn’t want to get up on the shelf–at least, that didn’t appear to be quite what it wanted. I had a powerful desire to help this animal that seemed to be asking something of me, but because I didn’t understand the bird’s nature or condition I couldn’t think what to do.

One obvious idea was that through accident, illness, or old age, the bird had lost its ability to fly and come to the farthest reaches of its life and ought to be “put out of its misery.” But because I didn’t know what I was looking at I didn’t feel it appropriate to dispense “mercy” as per that old and merciless cliché. Perhaps the bird had merely suffered some injury it could heal from in time.

The bird didn’t ask a third time. It fluttered away from me, its long, fine wings extended, touching elbows to the ground for stability.

Jim had stood several yards off observing but saying nothing. “I don’t know what we can do for it,” I admitted as we watched it wobble away. We continued on our hike up the canyon.

But the incident had thrown me into confusion. My usual appetite for outdoor adventure had gone and I could no longer focus on what we were doing. Questions banged in my head, all of them echoes of the big question: What had just happened?

Once at home, I looked for answers. Bird-watching friends helped me identify my bird as a white-throated swift, Aeronautes saxatalis, a bird I’d never heard of. But identifying the bird only raised more questions. My friends recommended I talk with Merrill Webb, a birding enthusiast and biology teacher at the Utah County Academy of Sciences, a charter school on the Utah Valley State College campus.

From Merrill I learned more about the swift’s remarkable qualities. A migratory species, white-throated swifts arrive in Utah during May from points south, including Mexico and Central America. An almost exclusively aerial species, they forage on flying insects and spend most of their lives in high-speed, agile flight. In Utah (and perhaps all of North America) only the peregrine falcon is known to be faster. One white-throated swift is reputed to hold the world record for sustained flight–three years without landing.

White-throated swifts don’t even land to mate. Merrill said that one of the most breathtaking scenes a birder can witness is the mating flight of these swifts as they come sweeping along the face of a cliff or through a canyon at breakneck speeds, copulating pairs tumbling through the air.

With a wingspan of up to sixteen inches, it’s remarkable that such a vigorous flyer weighs in at 1 ¼ ounce or less. Truly, I had held in my hand a creature of stunning qualities.

Now I knew something about the bird, but nothing I heard or read explained my experience. That the white-throated swift belongs to the order Apodiformes, subfamily Apodinae, which means “without feet,” might have been my first clue. Merrill Webb had mentioned that white-throated swifts have tiny, nearly useless feet. They can cling to cliff faces but climbing them or walking for any distance they cannot do.

Internet searches provided a possible key to the mystery. Birding articles from the U.K. and Europe said that if a swift becomes grounded for any reason its physiological combination of long wings and feet unserviceable on terra firma render it incapable of regaining flight.

The articles told how some who had found grounded swifts took them to the highest point they could find in the surrounding landscape and threw the birds off into open air, returning them to their lives. None of the articles I read told of swifts approaching the people who found them. But I wonder if such birds as inhabit otherwise uninhabitable spaces, especially in remote locations as they do in Utah, with few if any predators able to threaten them, might live in rare confidence like the birds and reptiles of the Galapagos Islands.

Of course the bird might have been addled by illness or injury. Or possibly the rough wind we’d struggled with the night before had brought it down. Whatever its circumstances, I understood at last that what I ought to have done to give the swift its best chance was to take it to the highest rock outcrop I could climb and throw the bird off, something that if were done to me would insure my death. And perhaps that partially explains my failure in the encounter. Thinking within the boundaries of my ignorance of this species and my own physical realities, the bird’s exigencies proved beyond me, though perhaps the bird itself had hoped for something better to happen between us.

11 thoughts on “Essay: Bird in the Hand”

  1. P. G., what a beautiful and moving story!!!

    I have always loved observing animals in nature since I was a small child.

    BTW, I posted a comment to your author description asking for info on your novel (or novels) — which I’m not sure you’ve seen — but after reading your various posts, I’m curious to see some of your other work… :D 

    Posted by C.L. Hanson

  2. On a flat water section of the Green River, a bit south of where I imagine your events occurred, I was canoeing several summers ago. I saw midstream and well ahead of our canoe, some surface disturbance of the water. At first, I thought it was a frog. As my canoe got closer, I saw that it was a bat, struggling in the water, drifting downstream. I used my paddle to push it to the edge of the river, leaving it there.

    I have always wondered at what set of circumstances might have led to a bat swimming in the river.

    Your investigation of the swift is marvelous. 

    Posted by greenfrog

  3. bbowen: Glad you liked it! Had a rough couple of weeks and decided to put up something I enjoyed writing.

    C.L.: Thank you for your kind words and I appreciate your asking about my novel. The Pictograph Murders  is available at the publisher’s site, Signature Books , and it’s always in stock at Amazon America (probably cheapest source). But you might try Amazon France and Amazon Germany–maybe somebody over there where you are has a copy.

    I’ve published in a few other places as well. If you’re interested in those pieces, email me at patriciagk dot mindspring dot com and I’ll point the way.

    greenfrog: I’ve come across a swimming bat, too, in a pool in Montezuma Creek in SE Utah. 18th century naturalist and ornithologist Gilbert White observes, “Bats drink on the wing, like swallows, by sipping the surface, as they play over pools and streams.” I think sometimes bats get clumsy and perhaps mired in the surface tension of their watering holes. Wet bats are not happy bats.  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  4. Wow, I’ll be thinking about this post all day (if not longer). What a remarkable experience! Thank you for sharing. 

    Posted by jana

  5. Hey P.G.K.,

    I ended up ordering the book through my local English bookstore. It turned out that Amazon France didn’t have any new copies in stock, so I figured that since I would have to wait to get it anyway, I would rather support my local independent bookstore. 😀

    So, to make a long story short (If it’s not already too late for that … 😉 ), I’ll have it in a month or two, and I look forward to reading it. 

    Posted by C.L. Hanson

  6. Jana said: Thank you for sharing. 

    My pleasure!

    C.L. said: I ended up ordering the book through my local English bookstore.

    Cool, hope you like the book! Let me know if you feel so inclined (and I imagine you will feel at least somewhat inclined).

    Jim F. said: I’m trying to decide which I prefer as an essayist, you or Wilfried Decoo. I can’t do it.

    Heh heh. I hope the problem doesn’t keep you up at night! Thank you for the kind words. 

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  7. Beautiful essay, though I must admit my favorite part was reading about Merrill Webb. He was my high school science teacher—a man more remarkable than even the swift you describe.

  8. BrianJ,

    I didn’t know Merrill before calling him up out of desperation as I wrestled with the experience. I’m grateful for all the help he gave me, but probably what mattered most to me was his answer to a question. Wondering whether or not I’d blundered in handling a wild bird, I asked him, “Would you pick up a wild bird if it approached you like that?” “Oh, you bet!” he said.

  9. Patricia,

    Merrill Webb has been known to slam on the brakes in a van filled with high school students travelling down the freeway simply because he saw a particularly rare species of falcon or an unusually large convocation of eagles and he wanted a second or closer look. Passion makes the teacher—and I’m sure you sensed that in your meeting with him.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

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