Saturday, May 15, 2010

on photographing dead birds

Purple Gallinule
Photo: jetheriot

I put birdseed on the back patio for the birds that live in my neighborhood. When I open the back door each morning, I see twenty or thirty doves peeking down from the roofs of the houses next door, waiting for their breakfast: mourning doves, white-winged doves and occasionally tiny Inca doves, their feathers scalloped and mottled like fuzzy scales on the side of a fish. Whenever I see an Inca dove, maybe once every month, I pretend an Incan princess has returned in the body of a dove to say hello. Some mornings, the patio is mythologically covered with doves. And when the family of bluejays, the family of cardinals, a squirrel and some sparrows join in, it ends up looking a lot like that scene from Snow White, but translated into Midtown Houston. I know by hearing a bluejay whether it is young or it is old. Often I become familiar with the voice of an adolescent bluejay and follow it from day to day until his boyish call matures and blends in with the scratchy cackles of the others. Today I saw a small female cardinal, a daughter of the cardinal family. I recognized her face from her visit to the patio yesterday. She hopped around handlessly with a tiny seed in her beak. When she cracked it open, I heard the husk fall to the brick floor she pranced upon.

Two or three mornings a week I ride my bike from our house in Midtown to a quiet spot in Montrose to get some coffee and do some writing. All the way there and all the way back, I listen to the birds on the street and in the trees. I have gotten to know the neighborhoods of the birds as well as the humans. Between the bike rides and the patio feedings I am often among birds. I see them in all of their stages, even the horrible accidents: the fallen nests with broken eggs, the collisions with windows, the gruesome splatters on the pavement. Last Sunday, a pigeon was dragged through the parking lot at Starbucks in slow motion by the undercarriage of a car. And one morning a few weeks ago, crossing Louisiana Avenue, I saw a sunlit starling as it touched its feet to the pavement and no sooner had she landed when the tires of a Lexus rolled over her. If you spend enough time watching birds, you will eventually see them die. Death is a part of bird life too after all. So why avert the eye? Even a flattened bird on the street is an opportunity for learning. At the very least, I will stop to look and mark the occasion with solemn acknowledgment. I don't always have a camera, but I am always on the look-out. And so, coming upon a bad accident at the intersection near our home this morning, not in any old neighborhood mind you but in the bird neighborhood I call home, when I saw a crooked wing jutting awkwardly from a pile of feathers and flapping mockingly against the pavement in the breeze, I braked hard and swallowed a lump. Was it a bird I knew? I hopped off my bike and walked it over to the wreckage. A dove? No. A pigeon? No. She didn't look familiar. A stranger to these parts. She certainly left a beautiful corpse.

Now, stopping to look at dead birds is not everyone's cup of tea. Some feel downright disgusted by the sight of a dead bird, so the thought of taking a photograph of one would never cross their minds. Not me. Of course it is a sad thing to see a dead bird and yes death can certainly be ugly, but isn't there beauty in melancholy too? This arresting lesson on the fragility of life, this bird with a crooked smile, cracked and at the same time immortal, a final fragrant rose stolen from the jaws of can't tell me there's no beauty there. Plus, it's not like I kill the birds to photograph them, the birds are already dead. I don't even eat birds much anymore. Which is worse, to devour a bird or to photograph one? Why shouldn't I stop to preserve, or at least observe, the minor tragedies I encounter, to give each fallen bird the proper salute it's due? If not for me, this rainbow-colored bird would have soon been forgotten to time. Now it has this story.

It's like yesterday when a patient at the facility telephoned the police after another patient punched him in the face. The sheriff showed up and the patient who threw the punches told her people get punched all the time. He asked her why did she even need to come. She said because she was the note-taker of this town. She said because whenever you call her office, it was her duty to drive to your neighborhood and write down the details of your story to document whatever happened and would he mind if she took his photo. That's what I do. I take notes. I take photos. I am the bird police.