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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Boy, A BB Gun and a Bird

First, the boy. Though I do not know his name, he is not exactly a stranger, for I have often seen him on the vacant lot adjacent to my back yard. He is the son of the lot owner’s girlfriend, a nice-looking young man, about fourteen, rosy-cheeked with dark hair and eyes.

Next, the BB gun. The first time I saw it, it was in the lot owner’s hands. However, the boy is the one who had possession of it the day a Catbird appeared in my yard, alive but suffering from a head wound. It was also the boy who used it a week later to kill a Robin—while his mother and the lot owner looked on.

The bird the boy killed yesterday was a Slate-colored Junco. Like Catbirds and Robins, Juncos are common—but like Catbirds, Robins, and most other birds, they are nevertheless protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Even on private property. While the boy and his mother may not know that, the lot owner does.

I should explain that I am former English teacher who, in retirement, has felt called to participate in citizen science, wherein ordinary people gather and report data to scientists who study the information thus gleaned. As calls go, this was a small one, involving no angels with their “Fear nots,” no long journeys, no dramatic confrontations with the Powers That Be, no astonishing pregnancies. This call came quietly through the invitation of a friend. It was easy to say “Yes” to a new way of observing small portions of God’s creation.

One instrument for that “Yes” is the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. One irony of yesterday’s Junco shooting is that it occurred on Day 3 of this year’s Count. I had just set up my camera at the back door, placed my binoculars nearby, and begun to watch—and count—the birds at my back yard feeders when the lot owner and the boy arrived. The lot owner scattered bread crumbs. Thirty minutes later, the boy had shot the Junco dead. I have pictures.

The neighborly thing to do, of course, would be to talk to the lot owner. But I have done that, as have others with more authority than I. I know from our conversations and from observing him at civic meetings that he is big on the rights of property owners—and that even on his vacant lot, he considers birds nuisances. “If you didn’t feed them, we wouldn’t have to shoot them,” he said to me once last summer.

Another irony of the Junco shooting was that the bread crumbs he threw down were directly in line with my back door. Given our divergent political and philosophical leanings, I cannot help but wonder: Was he merely baiting birds, or was he also baiting me?

Shaken, yesterday I did what I had previously been advised to do: I phoned the authorities. Today, this fourth and last day of this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count, I continue to watch and count—but also to watch and pray. Is there something else I should do? Today, Red-winged Blackbirds have come to the feeders, along with Blue Jays, Cardinals, Goldfinches, Sparrows, a Tufted Titmouse, a Carolina Chickadee, Mourning Doves, and yes, Juncos. Today I wonder: could any of them be angels? If so, what would they call me to do if they could speak?

By Angier Brock

1 comment:

  1. As I read your entry, A Boy, a BB Gun and a Bird, my emotions and my reflective thoughts about a by-gone day were triggered.

    I live in the Central Virginia countryside and love to feed and water the wild birds; especially when the weather turns bitterly cold and the bird's precariously balanced lives depend upon warmth-producing seeds and life-giving (non-frozen) water.

    My wife and I have also taken the role of caregiver for some abandoned cats that have found their way to our home; usually during the cold winter months. As you can imagine, cats and birds do not get along very well. I work very hard to keep the bird and cats separated by placing elevated feeders and shooing away cats that lurk under the feeders.

    It just so happened that on the day your blog post made it into my in-box, I had found the feathers of a chickadee underneath one of the feeders. One of our cats had, in its cat-ness, robbed a little bird from its bird-ness. I was at once angry at the cat and sad for the bird.

    I reflected back over the days when the starving and fearful cats came in search of food and water. Over the years, they have come to know that we will not harm them and we will feed them well, even provide them with a small cabin in which to sleep. They have it better than the birds. They have it so good. Why will they not just leave the birds alone, offering them the same fear-free existence that they (the cats) enjoy?

    Then there is the little chickadee that suffered at the paws of a creature that seems to take delight in playful and painful death. If only the bird had stayed at the feeder instead of going to the ground to eat. If only there was a healthy fear of the lurking cat. What about its friends the Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Nuthatch, and Mourning Dove?

    I reflected, too, on the days when I used to hunt Mourning Doves, Quail, Ducks and Squirrels. I stopped hunting when I was in my early twenties. I saw, close up, the beauty and life that I so violently extinguished with the blast of a gun. It was an internal motivation and not external in any sense. In my humane-ness, I had and have a reverence for, love the beauty of, and have a heart for all living creatures.

    Far from the little community in my backyard, I work with, witness, and read about in the paper human communities that function much like the birds, cats and me. There is the innate motivation to live free from fear, free from oppression, free from injury and death: to be all that we are created to be. Unfortunately, for some, there is also an irreverence for and motivation to take, even to violently extinguish the innate "being-ness" which another possesses. Then there are those who assert external controls (laws and regulations) in attempts to keep in check the internal motivations of some: to protect precious life.

    I pray, as do you, for the creatures in my backyard, for humans who live in communities across the earth, and for myself. I listen and watch for the signs of life and well-being. I continue to feed the birds and cats, and work hard to develop fear-free harmony among species that do not get along very well.

    Dave Cooper