Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds

I was originally attracted to Lyanda Haupt’s Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds by the cute bird on the cover and the cute title. I would never have discovered it if it hadn’t been on sale at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge store, which I always browse after my weekly walk.

Though generally not fond of non-fiction, this book was written by a Seattle writer about birds I observe regularly here in the PNW. Though I don’t really consider myself a birder, I am interested in knowing more about the birds I often see now that I’m paying attention to such things.

Surprisingly, the book has ended up being a favorite, a delight to read, proving the author’s statement that: “Birds will give you a window, if you allow them. They will show you secrets from another world, fresh vision that, though avian, can accompany you home and alter your life. They will do this for you, even if you don’t know them by name though such knowing is a thoughtful gesture. They will do this for you if you watch them.“

I thought it quite brave of Lyanda to begin her book with an essay on starlings, those “non-native pest species” that most of us have been taught to revile, not admire. Although an agency she worked for her had rules against helping save such birds, she was presented with the dilemma of whether or not to disappoint a child who has brought in a bird to be saved. She decided to save the bird because:

Here, a wider opportunity presents itself, one that transcends ecological or financial realities. Here is a child with an intact respect for life, and a rare opportunity to nurture that respect. Who among us does not still feel, in some small way, the mark made on our own quiet child heart by an injured bird that crossed our path?

She goes on to note that despite our prejudice against starlings that they are quite smart and that Mozart once had one as a pet.

She saves the best argument for respecting starlings for the end of her essay:

E. 0. Wilson wrote in Biophilia, his classic text on the innate human connection with the wider, living earth, “Every species is a magic well,” a window onto all others. As an urban dweller I am forced to come to grips with the idea that I might turn to the starling as easily as any other species for lessons in living with and alongside birds and the natural world. I consider the unique landscape of the Pacific Northwest to be my wider home, but every day I live in an urban cottage, not an ancient forest, a coastal prairie, or a heavenly alpine meadow. Those places surround me, they are my authentic home, inhabited by the lives of astonishing birds. I like to think that in the widest sense we are in the presence of all these birds, always. But today, we start where we are.

It’s far too easy to lose sight of this infinitely wise way of seeing the world. I have an unnatural fear of snakes, but I have no desire to kill them. I’m not fond of the deer who eat the flowers in the front bed as soon as they bloom, but I don’t feel a need to drive them off or hold a grudge against them. I don’t want starlings roosting in my fir tree or nesting in my attic, but they do have a place even in the Pacific Northwest ecosystem and fill that niche amazingly efficiently. Looked at objectively, they are really a rather handsome bird.