Like many people, when I was a child, I used to dream about flying, flying as naturally as I walk. Despite now having a creative and vivid dream life so bizarre that tales of my dreams frequently leave my boyfriend speechless (and possibly reaching for the phone to dial 9-1-1), my flying dreams have ceased, and they did so long before I developed a hunter’s keen appreciation for our feathered kin.
Now my understanding of birds is confined to what I witness of their lives in my yard, outside my office and where I hunt. While this seems like a prison compared with the dream life of my youth, it leaves me grateful that hunting entered my life. What an incredible string of serendipities that was! It has led me to see birds more as kin, roughly equal players on the field of life on earth, with intelligence that’s different but as valid as our own, rather than just critters to attract with feeders, protect from evil hunters or ward off from crops with shiny things and fake gunshots (or real ones).
(Somewhere an animal-rights activist is howling at those words. Where’s the equality when you have a shotgun, Holly? Well, let me tell you: Birds are much smarter than you give them credit for, and where their capacities are no match for our invention, we have invented restrictive laws to restore the balance. So back off, pal.)
Birds enchant me more than anything else I hunt, and how they taste, just salted and roasted or grilled, is definitely part of it – eating and hunting are, for me, inextricably intertwined. But the other day I was being interviewed for an article about women hunters, and I was asked what was my favorite hunting and why, and the answer was, of course, ducks, followed by doves. That part was easy.
But there was second part of the question: Why? My answer sounded like a high school yearbook autograph: Ducks are fast and smart and funny. This is pretty much how I like my humans too. I want banter. I want you to force me to say touché, and to laugh at myself. Ducks and doves do this.
OK, doves, not so smart. It’s summer so, I’m banding doves in my front yard again for the U.S. Geological Survey under the auspices of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and a couple nights ago I watched a dove – a gorgeous adult male – walk around my traps easily 20 times making the same mistake: missing the corridors leading into the trap. That’s like being really hungry on a long drive down I-5 or I-95 or across I-80 and missing 20 Burger King exits in a row. Twenty BK’s with “All Food Free Today” signs.
I took a break from watching him so I could eat my own dinner, and by the time I was done, he figured it out, and he now has some bling on his right leg. Thank God. I was beginning to wonder how he’d made it to adulthood.
But the rest of the birds… Well, in 1993, Jurassic Park delivered one of the best movie lines ever when a velociraptor – relatives of today’s birds! – outsmarted a human, the character Muldoon: “Clever girl!”
Twenty years later, I love watching that cleverness, combativeness and grace. Hummingbirds! People are so obsessed with feeders, but have you ever watched the whole hemisphere they occupy? They engage in epic, miniature, Lord-of-the-Rings battles that whip up and down my street. They’re like a bunch of Tinker Bells on crack, and how can you fail to envy the fact that they’re not confined to our two-dimensional, gravity-bound plane?
And mockingbirds! Honestly, they can go to hell. While their mimicry is charming, their endless screeching as they defend their young from any perceived threat – and they set the bar really low – is extremely irritating. Even so, you have to admire their devotion.
Crows. Why do people hate crows? They’re incredibly smart. I’ve watched them return to a French fry spill in the middle of a busy intersection without ever coming close to getting hurt. I can’t condone the diet, but I’ve got to admire the skill. I’ve never seen a dead crow in the road, but I’ve seen plenty eating from it.
And pigeons. Delicious, smart, social pigeons. Ever notice their fondness for intersections with gas stations? The way they’ll circle the intersection, play follow the leader, then land on a power line, only to be followed by the rest who try to bump them off that power line?
It might be the pigeons, more than any other bird, that make me envy the bird’s life. I know the intersections where they hang out, and I always watch for them when I’m stuck at red lights. I think about what they’re doing, which is playing, and what I’m doing, which is usually rushing to get gas, so I can then rush some other place where I can spend money or time, neither of which I have in abundance. Who’s the smart one in this equation?
Of course, these thoughts always bring me back to the obvious question, which is, “If you respect and love and admire them so much, how can you kill them?”
It’s awfully hard to come up with an irrefutable answer, aside from the one that’s obviously right: This is what we do. Not just humans, but all of us living things. We live on a planet where life feeds life, and the act of killing to eat has absolutely nothing to do with the twisted Hollywood/Disney notion of malice. (Seriously, Hollywood, enough with the snarling wolves – their victims are just dinner, not enemies.)
And even though we, as “civilized” human individuals don’t “have to” kill to eat, the reality remains that someone has to kill something – fungus, plant or animal – in order for any of us to eat. That doesn’t mean – and never should have come to mean – that we don’t respect, love and admire that which we eat.
Who knows – maybe the animals admire us too, with our protective footwear, our powerful command of the food chain and our air conditioning.
But given the choice, I think I’d still prefer flying.
Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com.