Studley Windowson, my personal chickadee, and I have had a tight relationship for the past three years, and by this point I can pick out his single “chip” note in a blather of birdsong even when I’m inside and he isn’t, which he mostly isn’t. (That one time he hopped into the house and landed on my desk didn’t work out well for anybody, although it was briefly adorable.) Yes, I can tell Studley’s voice just as fast as I can find an errant apostrophe in a page of prose. I generally go to the nearest window and put my finger up for him–so he knows I’m “on it”–and fetch my mealworm container and pop outside.
So I was on the back porch the other day dispensing worms for Studley as usual, and as usual he takes one and zips out to the hibiscus to saw it up for himself. He tears it neatly on the perforations. While he was busy doing that I looked up in the sky, because that’s what birders do, and I’ve given up saying I’m not a birder even though I’m not good at it. Clearly I am a birder of some description, or I’d never drive two mph on the highway with my head crammed into the windshield.
There was the usual traffic. Three local crows were doing a lazy circle around the Douglas fir next door, a whacket of pigeons went by, the neighbor’s Katsura coughed up a spray of goldfinches. And way up high, there was a hawk. Not one of the big fat ones. This was one of the little skinny ones with the long narrow tail, either a Cooper’s or a Sharp-shinned, which, for my money, are the same bird. I will never tell them apart, but I can pick out a skinny hawk from a great distance, and I personally know people who don’t even recognize chickadees that land on them. I looked back at Studley. He was still sawing away at his worm.
I kept an eye on the distant hawk, a dot in the sky. The various species of birds were occupying different layers of air like a living Bird Poster and he was at the tippy top all by himself. I know that hawk can move in a hurry and I’d already decided I would go stand next to Studley in his shrub so I can bat the hawk out of the air if he gets a notion for chickadee nuggets. But then Studs finished his worm, which usually means he’s coming in for seconds, only this time he stayed put, and glanced around, and made lots of little noises best represented by punctuation marks. He wasn’t going anywhere. The hawk wheeled away and back again and only when he passed over the house and out of sight did Studley dip back for his snack.
What a smart Studley! What a bird! Fully operational crack raptor detection system using eyes the size of poppy seeds. I was so impressed he could pick out a silhouette of a threat from so far away! But I shouldn’t be. All the proto-chickadees of yore who couldn’t recognize a hawk have long since been nipped out of the gene pool. Still it amazes: I’m sure it must come with the whole original package. They can’t be learning this all from personal experience. That would be dreadful. The spark of caution must be in the yolk somewhere.
I don’t know if there’s a parallel human experience. Most of us seem to be born wired to jump away from snakes. Spiders too. We’re born afraid of heights, which is sensible for the wing-deprived. But especially in the last couple hundred years, we’ve thrown so many layers of comfort and convenience between us and what we need to survive that we couldn’t tell a real threat from a horror flick. We poop in the water dish and kick over our kibble bowls. Extinction has to be fictional. But vaccines, antifascists, going gray, and Mercury in retrograde? Scary.