Gateway Animals?

I don’t want to be an enabler.

I really don’t.

My wife and I were sitting in the living room the other day when our doorbell rang.  I wish this wasn’t the case, but our doorbell ringing without warning is rarely a good thing.  We don’t have that many neighbors, and most of our family and friends just come on in.

But, ring it did, and as I opened the door I was surprised to see the couple from two doors down.  They’re new to the neighborhood, and we don’t know them well yet.  Their kids turn their bikes around in our driveway, and we wave when one of us drives by, but that’s about the extent of our relationship.

After we exchanged pleasantries, the couple got down to business:  “(Our neighbor in between our houses) said you’d be able to tell us about your chickens.  We’re thinking about getting some ourselves.”

I don’t know the direction that I expected our conversation to go, but that wasn’t it.  My mind was racing…was I willing to be partly responsible for a decision that could lead this young couple down a path that’s hard to come back from?

What if the habit stuck?  What if they found themselves with something like rabbits or ducks?  Miniature goats?  Would I be able to live with myself?

Heaven forbid they find themselves involved with bee keeping or permaculture.  All because of a conversation that started innocently.  What should we do?

“Sure, we can help you with that!” I replied.

…What the heck…you only live once.

 

Miracles All Around Us

As I’m thinking through this narrative, I suppose there’s value in starting by telling you a couple of things about myself.

First of all, I’m a geek. A nerd, even. If given the choice, however, I prefer “life-long learner.” I love to learn and explore new things. (One point of clarification, though: I’m not really a “fantasy” geek. You’re probably not going to see me in a costume outside of an elementary school, and I don’t watch or read a lot of sci-fi.)

Secondly, I’m unabashedly in awe of the natural world. While I’m blown away by the “big miracles” of things like birth, I’m also entranced by the tiniest natural processes: a flower in the lawn, a gust of wind, or the formation of a snowflake. Just wow.

Okay, enough about me.

Recently, I needed to leave the school I was working at to run over to another building and pick up some supplies. As I walked out the door into the early-afternoon sunshine, I realized I was about to walk into what I can only describe as a small swarm of birds.

There were probably 25 birds circling back and forth over the wide sidewalk in front of me. They flew almost silently, with only the occasional low chirp. I stood and watched, trying to figure out what type of bird they were, but I’m more of an orthographer than ornithographer. Their slightly forked tail and a flash of what appeared to be blue told me that I was looking at some type of swallow. I didn’t know at the time, but it turns out they were purple martins.

But why were they flying in circles over the sidewalk in front of the school? I stood a bit longer, thinking that it must have been food. I knew that swallows were insect eaters, but I just wasn’t seeing anything for them to eat.

And then I did.

Tiny insects, barely visible to me in the overhead light, were rising from the shrubs surrounding the sidewalk. They would fly in a nearly vertical, slightly zig-zagging path, emerging individually from the low junipers. I’d love to say that I tried to figure out what type of insects they were, but I’m more of an etymologist than entomologist.

“Snap.” “Snap.” Barely discernible, the sounds of bird beaks coming together started to make their way to my ears. Now that I knew what to look for, I watched as insects would rise from the ground only to be grabbed by one of the circling martins. At each confluence, I would see an insect disappear and hear a faint snapping sound.

As I said before, Just Wow. This went on and on as the insects kept coming. I knew what was happening, but this was the first time I’d ever seen it for myself. It was incredible. I marveled at the birds as they maneuvered within a tiny fraction of a second, wheeling at the outside of their orbit and adjusting their course to intercept a rising insect during their pass back over the sidewalk.

I have a rudimentary understanding of the science, but in my mind it was a miracle. One of the many all around us.

.

My story does have a coda. Despite it bumming me out, I’ll still share it.

After standing there for close to 10 minutes, I started to think about the school receptionist who must be wondering why I’m frozen just outside the door watching birds flying by. I had to share, so I turned, reentered the building, and approached her as she was talking to a parent. I waited for their conversation to finish, and with the enthusiasm of so many of the little people one finds within an elementary school, I quickly spilled the gist of what I had been observing outside. My excitement unabated, I was nearly giddy as I told my tale.

After listening politely, the receptionist went back to her computer and the parent walked toward the door, her visit to the school concluded.

As the parent made it to the door and exited, her eyes went down to the phone in her hand and never left it as she traversed the sidewalk. Even knowing it was there, she totally missed the miracle.

I Believe in Magic

Two brothers, one older and one much younger

Or one younger, and one much older

— That’s probably closer to the mark

Their quiet voices barely carried

through the pre-show murmur of the crowd

 

The younger: How do you think he does it? Is it really

magic?

Nah, it’s just a trick. There’s no such thing as magic.

I don’t believe in it.

 

The crowd started to quiet as the magician–if there is

such a person–walked through the parents on chairs ringing

the assembled children, so many children, who sat, faces upturned, looking

as if they believed

 

And with a swirl of long-practiced hands over a few bottle caps

placed

on the floor in the style of a street performance, the show began

 

There’s no such thing as magic?

 

I believe in magic

I’ve watched those young upturned faces and

the older as well

as their eyes went wide

when balls disappeared and reappeared or

playing cards changed their colors

How could I not believe?

 

I believe in magic

I’ve heard the gasps and breaths drawn sharply

I’ve heard the rapid, whispered, questioning voices

as keys were bent or

torn objects became whole again

How could I not believe?

 

I believe in magic

I’ve felt from the crowd around me

the excitement, the joy, the awe

as reality is suspended and

the cares of the world are set aside

if only for the length of the show

How could I not believe?

 

I’ll reassume the cares of the world

tomorrow or the next day or maybe not ever

But for now

for today

I believe in magic.

How could I not believe?

“I’ve heard…”

“I’ve heard…”

Ah, the things we’ve heard, believed, and passed on.  Sometimes, just sometimes, I pine for the simplicity of the urban myths of yesteryear.  What we’ve today come to call “fake news” or “alternative facts” were, well, simpler then.  Innocent.  Relatively harmless.  (Well, many were, anyway.)

Okay, this isn’t a political post.  It’s safe to keep reading.  I’m talking about commonly held beliefs from the natural world.

I’ve heard there are alligators in the sewers of (insert city name here, usually New York City).  They live off of pets and rats they can catch.  Some, because of how long they’ve lived underground, have hatched blind, albino offspring.

Or

The daddy longlegs is the most venomous spider in the world.  The only reason they don’t kill people is their fangs are too short to penetrate our skin.

These myths have been passed along and grown because they seem plausible.  It seems like an alligator could live in the sewer.  Maybe those spiders are dangerous…they’ve always kind of creeped me out, and their heads are really small.

A little bit of thought, or, Heaven forbid, a little bit of reading, though, and those stories sort of fall apart.  Before I go any further, I need to say I’m not throwing stones.  While I’m working to dismantle that particular glass house, it’s still way too beautiful for that!

Last night, I had an “I’ve heard” experience.  Like I did a few days ago, I was helping a friend of mine conduct a raptor presentation.   I was able to present Max, a male Eurasian eagle owl, to a youth scouting group at a local church.  Standing on the grass beside the building, we went through the standard presentation, took some questions, and then stood by as the kids were taken inside.  A few parents hung back, and one gentleman walked over to me, clearly eager to have a close-up look at the owl.

We talked for a few minutes as he asked questions about Max’s age, weight, natural habitat, and diet.  Then he paused as if he was reluctant to ask his next question.  After a moment, he said, “I’ve heard that birds of prey can eat their weight in food in a single day.  Is that true?”

We’d already talked about how the bird I was holding weighed around four pounds, so, in essence, he was asking if it could eat four pounds of food in a single day.  I respected his question, but all the more so because he already sounded a bit skeptical himself.

Now, honestly, I didn’t know how much a raptor can eat in a single day.  I wasn’t going to pull out my phone to look it up, but I did do a bit of the thinking I mentioned earlier.  I knew most birds are typically already at about their weight limit for flight.  If they were much heavier, they just couldn’t fly.  I also knew, though, that raptors do, indeed, have a big appetite.

So we talked it out as we thought through it together.  We decided that a four-pound bird could probably eat about one pound of food.  We also decided that a bird (or any other animal larger than an insect) couldn’t possibly eat its weight in food.  Mosquitos, probably, but that’s about it.

After a few more minutes we said goodbye and he walked off to go find his kid.  It was good–fun, even–to think through a problem like that and come up with an educated guess.  It was a lot better than me just rattling off an answer; that’s what I think, anyway.

As a closing note, I did look it up.  A raptor will sometimes eat between 1/4 and 1/3 of its weight, but then not need to eat again for a while.  Wow…that’s an appetite.