Sarah Jean McPeek
We huddle together on the ground, the handsome male chestnut-sided warbler and I. I’ve never seen one so close before, and I feel guilty for my giddy excitement. Against the green grass, his white underbelly and black wings shine with slashes of vibrant yellow and deep chestnut brown. I’d been admiring him and his partner from our porch earlier today as they flitted among the flower bushes lining our backyard. How different he looks now, inches away from my nose, and paralyzed by shock.
I didn’t see him hit our window. My mother found him under the sill and we carried him down onto the grass. Now he sits dazed, eyes shut, quivering faintly, and I lie beside him on my stomach, eyes wide, anxiously waiting for him to breathe.
His bumpy eyelids remain closed and still, and I begin to fear the worst. Against my better judgement to leave injured animals be, I stroke my finger between the ridges of his half-folded wings. He barely flinches, too stunned even to shy away. I want to cry: Please, I’m not your enemy! I’m trying to save you, but staring at the disheveled bundle before me, I realize that it is my fault, because it was our window. The back of our house is cut apart by wide panes of glass to filter in natural sunlight. Through the gaping windows I can enjoy the trees, the lawn, and the hill sloping down to the sparkling lake, all without leaving the cool comfort of our kitchen table. Windows give us the illusion of being closer to nature, but nature is under an illusion as well, and a dangerous one. Just as I glimpse my own mirrored face overlaying the landscape when I gaze through the glass, all a bird sees are the green of the trees, the blue of the sky, the beauty of open space, and the reflection of another bird.
I’ve slammed my head into glass doors and screened windows more times than I can count, but for me the only damages are red-faced embarrassment and a sore lump on my forehead. For a bird, the impact can be fatal. An estimated one hundred million birds die every year from smacking into windows, some instantly from blows to the brain, others languishing for days with severe internal injuries. Cupping the warbler in my hands, I can feel his hollow skeleton, so fragile that I could snap him like a twig. Bird bones are delicate and hollow, built more for air than Earth. With their keen vision and balance, they swoop through dense forests and prickly meadows, easily avoiding obstacles in their path. But even a bird is no match for the deception of a transparent wall.
At last, he opens his eyes and begins to pant, like a dog on a hot day, or a person gasping for breath after a scare. It’s at once heartbreaking and endearing to see the trauma in his little face, and I giggle at his lolling pink tongue. Once his heaving settles, he swivels his head and stares directly at me.
I return his stare, nose and bill mere inches apart. As I gaze into his glimmering black eyes, I try to imagine the world as she sees it; While humans have three types of optic cone cells to detect light, birds have a fourth that captures the ultraviolet spectrum. Where we see a dull sheen in their feathers, birds may see a rainbow of indescribable beauty and light.
Everything around us blurs into flashes of movement and color- and peril. The dark crow looming in the branch over our heads, waiting for him to keel over. Every tree, bush, wall, and fence an obstacle to be avoided, the very wind rustling the leaves an imposing force that could blow him off course. There are biting ants in the grass, stinging wasps and mantises with no scruples about attacking a defenseless creature. And then I see myself, perhaps the greatest threat of all: a giant who could crush him in my talons if I dared. I feel so small, and simultaneously so massive; so endangered and yet, so dangerous.
We continue gazing into each other’s eyes, two lives experiencing a moment of recognition. Watching the rise and fall of his rumpled breast in time with my shallow breathing, I sense he understands me, too. He cocks his head at me- could it be quizzically? I am curious about him, and he seems to be curious about me, too. I experiment, poking my finger in front of his bill. He focuses his eyes on the tip. I slide my finger to the right, he turns his head to match, quicker than a blink. Is it fear, the paranoia of watching for a sudden strike, or is it something like playfulness?
I draw circles in the air, he follows them with his eyes, his head, his pinprick bill. We mirror each other, moving in a slow, hypnotic dance. I am both his doctor checking for signs of lingering injury and his friend playing at copycat. Pursing my lips, I whistle, and he mimics with a clear, sweet song.
Then, he bursts into a flapping yellow and chestnut fireball, swerving just over the top of my head and out of sight.
I’m stunned. I stare at the empty patch of grass and I feel it’s me who has hit a pane of glass, a barrier which I tried to convince myself didn’t exist. I’ve been fooled as well, thinking I was looking at a mirror, a reflection of myself, and not a momentary window into another being. Now, I’m confronted with the cruel knowledge that I will forever be an outsider in the outdoors.
The central crux of my human experience is that it is only a human experience. I can imagine having wings instead of arms, feathers instead of hair, I can even feel the wind buffeting my cheeks as I soar over purple mountains and golden valleys. But I can’t see colors beyond the spectrum of visible light. I can’t feel the tug of the Earth’s magnetic field guiding me home; I’m lucky if I can follow the voice on my GPS. There are aspects of a bird’s world that are forever absent from mine. He and I are two lives connected by a moment of collision, but I can’t escape the reality that our experiences of the world are fundamentally different, distant.
Despite our differences, I’m convinced that he and I found a connection, until he severed the ties by flying frantically into my face and away. So close, and yet so far from understanding. It’s safer to maintain a distance, for I just experienced firsthand what tragedies can befall when the wild strays too near the house. I must content myself with looking through binoculars, feeling close enough to reach out and touch the eagle in its nest, when really we are separated by a wide lake. Still, with the assurance that he’s alright, I can cherish these rare moments when nature opens its windows and lets me seek these answers.
Pleased pleased pleased to meet’cha! The stillness of the afternoon, and my reverie, are broken by the lusty song of a chestnut-sided warbler. It’s him, I’m sure of it, calling from a faraway tree. I squint but can’t make out a flash of chestnut and yellow in the late afternoon light. And it may be merely my human projection of language and emotion onto another unknowable soul, but from where I lie against the cool, soft earth, it almost sounds like gratitude.