Friday, May 19, 2006

Last week, Coturnix tagged me for a new blog meme and, like everything else this last week, I'm way behind on it. But, enough excuses. Here it is. This one is the beautiful bird meme. It's the simplest meme I've ever seen. It has one question: what are the ten most beautiful birds? That shouldn't be so hard to answer, should it?

Unfortunately, I'm not a bird watcher or a naturalist, so I don't know squat about birds. I could have looked up a good field guide and flipped through till I found ten that I thought were pretty, but that didn't seem very honest. I could have tried something clever, like naming some really obscure birds, extinct birds, cartoon birds, or listing some of the neighborhood birds by their first names (Let's see, there's Chester, Big Sue, Kim, Leah, Little Sue, Robyn...). But I decided to go with naked honesty and name birds I have seen and can actually name.

My pool of name-able birds is quite limited. Most city birds are little brown birds. The city also has lots of pigeons and seagulls. They can be interesting, but they're not really what I would call beautiful. Here in Seattle we have a few wild falcons, an occasional blue jay, and crows. I think all of those qualify as beautiful. Back in Alaska, we had several types of eagles near my home and the family cabin. On the cliffs around Prince William's Sound are puffins, which are so unbearably cute that they are inevitably every child's favorite bird. The state bird of Alaska is the ptarmigan, an type of pheasant that molts in the fall to change from mottled brown to snow white.

My favorite birds are ravens and crows. When I was a little kid in Idaho, I didn't think much of crows. I saw them in the potato field and on phone lines. They always looked like a detail-less silhouette rather that a bird. They sure didn't look like their cartoon alter-egos, Heckel and Jeckel, Fox and Crow, or the jaybirds in Dumbo. I didn't understand the racial stereotyping in those cartoons until I was a teenager.

The first winter after we moved to Alaska, I discovered ravens. One day my family went to see an ice sculpture competition. It was one of those glorious sunny winter days right after a fresh snowfall. The ground was clean and white and the sky was so blue it hurt. I learned how the combination of fresh snow and bright sun can cause you to loose your depth perception. As we got out of the car and had that moment of milling around that all families have when getting out of the car, I started watching a crow going about its business in the parking lot nearby. There was a dumpster on the far side of the parking lot. Suddenly I became dizzy. The crow was not near me, it was on the far side of the parking lot next to the dumpster. While my eyes were trying to focus on the proper distance to bring the two together, my mind was totally unable to make sense of the size of that crow. If it was next to the dumpster, it had to be half as tall as the dumpster, maybe two and a half feet tall. That was the first time I'd ever seen a raven. Later I learned about the importance of Raven to many Alaskan native mythologies. I learned how smart they are.

Since getting a house, I've had a chance to watch real crows and learn how much like ravens they are. Crows are smart, cooperative, and loyal. Once, while working in the yard, Clever Wife saw a small crow with terrible looking feathers crash into the lilac bush while two bigger crows flapped about screaming. She thought the big crows were attacking the little one and called to me to come and help. I tried to drive the big crows off while she tried to help the little crow get out of the bush and escape.

The big crows flew up in a tree and kept screaming, while occasionally throwing pine cones at my head. The little crow got out of the lilac, climbed up on our garden bench, and launched his self into the air, only to crash into a lavender bush and get stuck upside-down.

Clever wife helped him out and put a leaned a board against the fence so he could climb up and launch him self from a higher perch. After we watched him crash into most of our bushes, we finally figured out that he was a young bird learning to fly. His feathers weren't ragged because he'd been attacked; he was molting and his adult feathers hadn't all grown in yet. The big crows were trying to protect him from us.

After that episode, Clever Wife and I read up on crow behavior. Crows, it turns out, mate for life and take very good care of their young. By the end of the day we knew Little Crow's voice well enough to keep track of him throughout the rest of the year while he grew up.

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