May 2012

We have looked at birds all of our years and longed to know what it is like to fly with such ease. How we yearn to leave the boundaries of the earth, heavy and leaden, and take to the air, soaring in three dimensions, picking out airstreams to support our light weight, angling wings back and close to our body to hurtle with total control towards an object—to flip the leading edge of our wing up and land lightly on a branch, to spread broad wings and soar on rising columns of air. Has there ever been a human child who has not looked and wondered, mimicking by running in circles on the solid ground, flapping arms furiously without feeling the slightest sensation of lift? Would we fly in the dark nights of our dreams if birds did not stimulate our imagination? Watching a flying bird casually looking to and fro as it travels an invisible road inspires an epiphany. It is casually doing what it does, not at all impressed with itself. When we wish we could fly, do we know enough about what else birds can do to wish for those skills also?

Do we wish we could see the brilliance of the world, the rainbow of bird colors, the polarized light the way birds can—to combine wavelengths of colors we can see with wavelengths of ultra violet light in intensities and brilliancies we cannot even approximate in our limited sensory world? Do we wish we were able to filter colors through pigmented oils so each hue is more pure and unadulterated than any we would otherwise be able to perceive, to use huge eyes to see from great heights an object a mile away, to process images so quickly that we could speedily fly through a forest of trees without even touching a leaf or branch, angling our bodies at each last moment to avoid contact?

Do we wish we could hear the way birds can, seemingly able to mentally slow the rapid notes of song to hear more detail in and between each note, hearing ten notes where we hear one? Do we wish we were able to recognize the voice of the bird in a cacophonous colony of raucous others numbering in the thousands, to pick out the subtle differences in crow voice so we could recognize each individual, to hear the harmonics divided the way they come from the syrinx, to hear the small scurryings of a mouse in total darkness and know exactly where it is?

Do we wish that we could find our way thousands of miles back and forth each year, following some internal guidance that we can guess at and experiment with but never experience? Do we wonder what it feels like to arrive at the one spot in the world we have been traveling to on south winds or north winds and touch down lightly, coming home twice a year on a path that is clear to birds in a way that we can only wonder and marvel at?

We watch birds; we listen to them; we feed them; we make observations, sketches, and recordings. We take gorgeous photographs. We band birds and recapture them. We put data collectors on them. We do DNA, fossil, anatomic, and physiological studies. We write poems and blogs. We surmise and guess and conclude. We learn more and more, all of it amazing. But we will never know what it is like to be them—spectacular birds!

- Linda Orkin