“The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone
I got a new book in the mail last week. But it's not a novel or a book of poetry, like most of the books I order. In fact, it has nothing to do with my usual life, in which I read and write and encourage my middle schoolers to do the same. Instead, it's a giant textbook. I stood on my bathroom scale holding it so I could tell you its weight: five pounds.
I'm taking a bird biology course from eBird, that is to say, through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I'm doing it because it's fascinating and fun, because the birds have been there for me through this whole pandemic horribleness, and other varieties of horribleness in the past, because sitting down on my chair on my front porch with my binoculars is a surefire way to quiet my mind and slow down my heartbeat - until it speeds up my heartbeat again with a rush of wings.
But as I read the second chapter of my new giant book, getting ready for a quiz (What on earth are they going to ask me? Just because this course is at my own pace doesn't mean my nerdy grade-conscious self goes away. How can I learn all these things?), I realize another reason to learn about birds: learning about birds makes my world big again.
My world has been small for a while, due to political lockdown and then COVID-19 lockdown, and it's been a while since I've gone anywhere but work and home. Church has been over the internet, and so has socializing, and even my writing group (we're in three countries now, and I keep getting kicked off the Google Meet at the most inopportune moments, so aware that this place where I am isn't all there is, but left sitting on my bed again, the voices of my writing buddies silenced as my screen tells me that an attempt to reconnect is in process).
But oh, the birds. They aren't limited by quarantines or national boundaries or shutdowns of any kind. They soar over our heads, arriving here from up north for our balmy weather, heading back up there to breed. Our year-round inhabitants are pretty amazing too, though not as diverse as I'd like in my own yard, where I'm often stuck lately. And then there's the giant list in chapter two, seventeen orange pages labeled: "Box 2.09 A survey of avian orders and families Contributed by Shawn M. Billerman."
Shawn M. Billerman introduces me to bird families around the world, each more unlikely-sounding than the last. Words like "strange," "bizarre," and "odd" abound, and my favorite: "little is known." Almost any description I could quote fills me with delight as I imagine other parts of the world and the dawn chorus they must have there.
"Apterygidae. The kiwis are a small group of small- to medium-sized, flightless birds found only in New Zealand. Covered in fine, brown, hair-like feathers, kiwis are mainly nocturnal and forage primarily on earthworms. They lay the largest egg proportional to their body size of any living bird."
"Otididae. Bustards are medium-sized to very large terrestrial birds found across open grasslands and savannas of the Old World. The bustards include the world's two heaviest flying bird species: The Great Bustard (Otis tarda) of Europe and western Asia, and the Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori) of sub-Saharan Africa."
"Stercorariidae. The skuas and jaegers are seabirds found in oceans worldwide, but they restrict their breeding to high latitudes. They feed primarily by pirating food from other birds, particularly gulls and terns."
How, I wonder, did people come to learn all these facts? Who measured the kiwis' eggs? Who weighed the bustards? Who watched the skuas stealing food from the terns?
And every page has more gems like that. What does a "frugivorous, cave-dwelling Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis)" look like? (Sounds like Dr. Seuss made that one up.) Who first found out that Mousebirds "huddle together in groups for warmth?" What kind of observations and experiments were required before someone figured out that "The Crested Pitohui, like other distantly related poisonous pitohuis, incorporates toxins into its feathers?"
After I read these descriptions, I feel as though I live in a huge, colorful world, full of a multitude of birds, flying and foraging and creeping and scrambling - that last word is from a description of Atrichornithidae: "Scrubbirds, unlike most birds, lack a furcula (wishbone) and are very poor fliers."
And then, as I'm almost at the end of the survey of avian orders, I find a familiar friend.
"Dulidae. The Palmchat (Dulus dominicus), the only member of this family, is endemic to the island of Hispaniola, where it constructs huge stick nests high in trees that are occupied by multiple pairs. The Palmchat has brown, streaky plumage and forages in groups, primarily on fruit."
Maybe my world isn't so small. There were, after all, lots of Palmchats in my Haitian front yard this morning, filling the ficus tree with squawks and stripping it of its orange fruit. I saw two of them touching their beaks together - what was that about? I can't make any interpretive leaps, my studies tell me, and I mustn't anthropomorphize (Were they kissing?), but I can certainly watch and wonder. I can rejoice as my binoculars bring the fuzzy bird shape into sharp focus, and as I notice the streaky brown plumage of its breast and the way it hovers at the end of the branch before settling down to its meal.
Mysterious, omnipresent, beautiful birds. I love them, and I love to learn about them. I go to recess duty with my binoculars around my neck, and sometimes the kids talk to me about birds in their trademark middle school mocking way, as I point upwards: "Look! A hummingbird on the wire! See that? It's an Antillean mango." Or more often: "Yeah, those are all house sparrows. Did you know they live almost everywhere in the world?"
Look up! There are always birds. The world is bigger than you think.