1. Mohawk the Starling Gets Personal
Today I met Mohawk the Starling.* He lives at Carol Pettigrew’s BEAKS (Bird Emergency and Kare Society) in a small neighbourhood known as Blueberry, just steps away from the banks of the Columbia River near Castlegar, BC. He was brought to the shelter by caring people when they discovered Mohawk’s mother had died. So they brought him and his siblings to Carol—an extremely lucky break for these birds. Shortly after the starlings were released, Mohawk—named for the stripe on his head when he was brought in—returned to the shelter and has remained there since. Mohawk the Starling has become the BEAKS ambassador, and a more effective PR agent could hardly be imagined.
Anne and I were invited to step into the tiny room where smaller injured birds recover—a robin, siskins, an evening grosbeak, a snow bunting, a violet-green swallow. And Chester the Robin—more about him later. ** (see Part 2) Right away Mohawk flew to Carol and landed on her shoulder, chattering excitedly at her ear. He flew between her shoulder and his perch a few times. But then he landed on my forearm and began chattering at me. At first I found the sensation of the bird’s feet on my bare arm a bit disconcerting. But I knew instinctively the thing to do was remain still and not give in to fear. When Mohawk began ‘preening’ me, or prospecting for bugs in the folds of my shirt and in my glasses case, I had to master the urge to flinch.
As if sensing that I was safe, Mohawk stayed on my arm, sometimes moving to my shoulder to prospect behind my ears, but always staying close. And the excited chatter! It was as if a small child, suddenly realizing it has someone eager to listen to its tale, talks non-stop, telling its story freely and openly. And the sheer range of vocalizations! Carol said Mohawk is so smart that “what he hears today he’ll repeat tomorrow.” And he did indeed make a sound that was suspiciously like Carol’s laugh. She tells me he even says “ridiculous,” a favourite expression of hers.
After a short time Mohawk and I were on intimate terms and he looked right into my eyes as he chattered and sang. We played a game—he would make a sound, I would imitate it, then he’d make a different sound and I’d imitate that, as if he were testing me. Then the game was reversed and I made clicking sounds or birdlike whistles, waiting for him to imitate. He wasn’t quite as fast a learner as I am but I could hear him getting some first drafts pretty close. As a writer and aspiring musician I can tell you that’s pretty damn good. As Carol reminded me again, Mohawk will have it down by this time tomorrow.
I wish I’d had the foresight to bring my digital recorder because I can hardly begin to describe the range of sounds this bird made. Some were typically birdlike trills and snatches of whistling song. Yet other sounds were inexplicable in a bird of this kind. A purring sound. Guttural sounds rolled like pebbles in the throat. A sound something like a cross between a baby bird and a kitten. Snatches of words he’s picked up from his human caregivers, words I couldn’t quite make out, or that had yet to fully form. Corvid biologist John Marzluff, in his book Gifts of the Crow, writes: “When we overhear crows singing softly to themselves, we wonder if they derive pleasure simply by listening to the sounds they can make. So much of what we hear from crows or ravens is inexplicable. They ring like bells, drip like water, and have precise rhythm. They sing alone or in great symphonies. Some of their noise could be music.” It’s possible exceptional birds like Mohawk are doing the same.
I began to realize that this bird was not about to let me leave easily. His attention span was concentrated, focused on me. He might shift position, from one arm to the other, or to my shoulders for a quick reconnaissance of my ears. But always he came back to looking up at me and continuing his dialogue. I kept my body still throughout, partly of course to avoid stepping on injured birds unable to fly yet. But mostly I wanted this amazing moment not to end. I wanted Mohawk to know that he was safe; he was heard. And did he ever know it!
I had found a friend. I only felt guilty that I would very soon have to leave him. I joked that he was trying to adopt me. That he was telling me the whole story of his mother’s death, his siblings alone and hungry, of the kind people who rescued them, of getting to know Carol over the past winter. An audience! Exactly what any storyteller wants—needs, even. But was it a joke? Or was he in fact reaching across the veil that normally separates us from the animal world?
I’ve often wondered these days if animals aren’t reaching out to us. And reaching across other species barriers to cooperate. Almost every day on the Internet someone posts a video or a Facebook entry about animals who are normally enemies forming friendships. Like the crow who became playmate to a kitten, rolling and tumbling together in the grass. The two became inseparable. And like the doe who saw me looking at her through my window and came over to the house to ask for a treat. I’d been putting out some of my old apples from last year’s harvest so they wouldn’t eat the birdseed. That deer knew immediately, not only was I no threat, I’d feed her.
It’s as if birds and animals are sensing that our world is in a critical situation right now. And saying to us: ‘We’re not so different, you and I. We have families. We struggle to survive day after day, as you do. We have feelings. Some of us even feel grief when one of us dies. Can’t we get together to save our world?’ Just as author Marta Williams says in Learning Their Language—Intuitive Communication with Animals and Nature: “The Hopi prophecies for our time suggested that if people could experience a shift in consciousness and reconnect with animals, nature, and spirit, much of the predicted destruction could be avoided.”
We are at last breaking the falsehood of animals and birds as Creation’s automatons, the Cartesian duality that sundered us so tragically from Nature. It stands to reason that every creature on this Earth carries in its bones the wisdom of thousands of years of evolution and experience. We too as humans are not just in the environment, we are the environment. When we grow up in a certain landscape it becomes a part of us. Even if we don’t live there still, it remains with us. In order to function in a material world, creatures need a nervous system to warn of pain, give us cues for eating, drinking, etc. In other words, that creature must feel in order to survive. And while there are differing levels of feeling just as of intelligence, the fact is that animals and birds are feeling—and intelligent—creatures with us in this world.
And so it pained me to have to leave Mohawk. Yet I know that even Carol will have to say goodbye to him too. Just as she has had to do hundreds of times in her decades of caring for injured birds. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” Shakespeare wrote, and death is part of life. We have to learn to let go or we suffer, we remain trapped. The last thing I want is a bird trapped in a cage—neither a literal one nor my spirit trapped in a cage of my own making. As the Buddhists say, the condition of being is suffering. To fight against that fact is pointless. If only I had the decades of spiritual practice to fully absorb that spiritual gem. But I’m working on it….
*Starlings are not native to North America—they were introduced by well meaning Europeans to New York City in the 1890s. They have since spread across the continent. Always a dangerous strategy, introducing non-native species often leads to them becoming invasive species that can decimate an environment and cause other species to decline.