Blue jay on birdbath

Why We Have Birds

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series

Salt Lake City, 2021

Watson’s favorite hangout spot is at the foot of the bird bath in our neighbor’s yard. Or sometimes he’ll perch on the edge like a gargoyle. Sometimes he’ll take a drink himself.

The coloring on his face is slightly crooked, and his right eye’s kind of cross-eyed, which makes him look like… let’s just call it “not too deep a thinker,” but he’s worked it out: Birds keep landing there, and Watson loves to stalk birds.1

One time he actually caught a dove. Compared to his little cat face, it looked as big as a pelican, and Watson’s way of walking back with it—tail high, stepping through the iris leaves—was almost stately, like a drum major leading his own parade. Plus, somehow despite all the flapping, despite the size of the cargo in his mouth, he seemed to be grinning.

Tracy Aviary, 2010

I didn’t know peacocks can fly, did you? But they can, or else they’re good climbers, because up in the tree limbs, 40 feet above, we saw this waterfall curtain of feathers, peacock blue.

Hwy 40, East of Heber

I remembered about that peacock while driving to Strawberry Reservoir, maybe because Watson was up in a tree when we left. I forgot to help him down first, then thought Oh no about 80 miles later. What if he’s stuck? What if he’s still up there when we get home… sad that he couldn’t catch the finch… sad that he’s thirsty?

Puyallup, Washington

My friend Jay lives there. When we were kids, his parents called him Jaybird, and that’s what Jen and I call our son Jameson too. So does his niece. Every time she sees him. And then again some more across the dinner table: Hi Jaybird, Hi Jaybird. He’s got a huge fan.

He’s also got a smartphone, like the rest of his generation—those gizmos forever with them, always, like a third opposable thumb. His mom says all his proclamations are just what kids do when they get to this age. We’ll say, “How do you know that?” or “Where’d you hear that?” or “I’m pretty sure that’s not right,” then get a grumpier answer than either of us wanted to hear, but I did like this one: Coming down the stairs one day, he said, “Hey, Dad, did you know that crows are the smartest kind of bird? They’re part of the kroners, or carbonites, or anyway some kind of family.”

“You mean corvids?”

“Yeah corvids. So are blue jays. Whenever blue jays see people, they criticize what they’re doing and like to yell at them.”

He said this with one of those smiles, you know? Like he didn’t mean to let it show but it halfway slipped out.

“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

“Nowhere,” he said. “I’ve just known it for awhile now.”

“So it’s lucky we’ve always called you Jaybird.”

“Yes it is.”

Watson and Sherlock
Watson and Sherlock, the author’s cats.
Photos by Jameson Carney.

All the Western U.S.

Everyone paying attention knows the West is in serious trouble. Australia too. A whole planetary roll call of places: wildfires, record heat waves, fill-in-the-blank drought—mega, super, decades-long, state-of-emergency, extreme… any of those adjectives will do. And the heat?—a hundred million mussels baked right there and reeking in the tide pools. Trouble.

And inland isn’t any better. Each river, each body of water, is setting new records for lowness, year after year. I’m not an ornithologist, but still I can ask this question: If moored boats are practically dry-docked in their slips, then what does that mean for all the migratory birds relying on the wetlands? By “all” I mean more than a billion of them.

Picture it like this: You’re trying to drive cross-country—maybe from Baja to Alaska, or to Phoenix-Albuquerque-Billings-Seattle then back home. But you can’t, not really, because these geese have bulldozed every rest stop, and some swans have blown up all the gas stations, and there are cranes stabbing holes in all our water mains and every bottle of water, and even the monarch butterflies are getting in on the action, raining down poison on the off-ramp restaurants, then setting the next-to-last grocery store on fire.

That Saying from the Coal Mines

They used to take canaries down with them: living alarm bells. If the bird died, then Get the hell outta here…! Well? We could say blue mussels aren’t the same, I guess, but their shells fold open like wings.

Salt Lake City, 2021

Watson was fine; don’t worry. And Sherlock—that’s our other cat—he was fine too. The rescue place told us, “They’re a bonded pair,” and they were right; they’re totally friends, stampeding down the staircase together then sliding into the turn like speed skaters mixed with Wile E. Coyote. Or else napping in a yin-yang symbol since they’re white-and-gray and black-and-white.

Up at the reservoir, there was a heron on the dock. Its shape, all its movements: calligraphy.

Two pelicans. A seagull.

Even cranes, or at least I think so. They were too far away from the boat to be sure, a dozen white blurs along the shoreline. My son Quentin said, “I guess I missed the cranes. I wish I’d seen them.”

I said, “Next time. There will be other days.”

I hope that’s true.

1 Admitting that I let my son’s cats go outside might make some readers mad at me. I hope not. That isn’t my intention. Still, I need to address the cat question—

I admit to being pissed when people’s dogs came after my cat Gruden (May 18, 2002 – June 17, 2020). A couple times I even had to pull him free, and both of us—I could tell from his expression—thought it sucked that he’d gotten too old to fight back. I thought There shouldn’t be dogs. There shouldn’t be people out walking them and letting them mess with my cat in his own damn yard! But then I had to admit that dogs are dogs, and it doesn’t mean their owners are terrible.

What I’m saying, I guess, is things are complicated: Should I never let my son’s cats go outside because maybe they’ll kill a bird? I’m willing to admit that I’m not sure, but this isn’t true of everyone, and there are numbers—seemingly improbable ones—to back up those with more certainty than me.

Here’s what I mean: According to the American Bird Conservancy, cats kill 2.4 billion birds each year (though obviously not the herons, geese, and other birds I’m talking about). The estimated number of house cats in the U.S. is right around 59 million, and many of them are too old to catch birds, or they’re indoor cats, or they’ve been declawed, which seems awful, but sometimes people do that… anyway, to get to 2.4 billion, then every single house cat in America would have to catch and kill 40.7 birds per year. Not the one dove Watson caught but 40 more. And does he? Absolutely not.

So does this mean that the information from the American Bird Conservancy is incorrect, or possibly alarmist? That’s not what I’m saying, and I’m not using their statement that 69 percent of these bird deaths are caused by unowned cats like some sort of “gotcha.” I’m just saying that to keep an animal stuck inside when it wants to be out means weighing one animal’s instincts, preference, sense of self, and joy against another’s. We make choices, and the choice I’ve made is cats. I don’t choose dogs, but I try to forgive them. And I’ve chosen the side of my neighbor, who’s on the side of hawks.

Mike’s not a scientist, but he’s also not unreasonable, and he knows where the neighborhood owl lives and isn’t bored when I tell him what the quail have been up to. Mike keeps wishing (and me too) that the hawks would feed on these Eurasian collared doves, only they don’t; they don’t for some reason that the hawks aren’t telling; so when I mentioned that Watson had caught one, he said, “That’s good. Now he needs to catch some more because they’re crowding out the native [mourning] doves.” This isn’t without consequence, and there’s actually some logic here: Hawks like eating mourning doves, and Eurasian collared doves are territorial, so Eurasian doves in our yards means fewer meals for hawks.

Am I being anecdotal? I suppose so. And perhaps this debate is unwinnable. But then again, it wasn’t my intention to win, just to talk about birds, and mostly the larger ones. Drought is in the news again, the same as every summer, so I’ve been thinking about our water, and the wetlands, and also some other things too.

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Rob CarneyRob Carney’s first collection of creative nonfiction, Accidental Gardens, is out now from Stormbird Press, and his new book of poems, Call and Response, is available from Black Lawrence Press. Previous books include Facts and Figures, The Last Tiger is Somewhere, The Book of Sharksand 88 Maps.

Read an interview with Rob Carney appearing in “The Ocean is Full of Questions.”
Read Rob Carney’s Letter to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by and Trinity University Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to an interview on Montana Public Radio about The Book of Sharks.

Header photo of blue jay on birdbath by GeorgiaLens, courtesy Pixabay. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.