For the Birds Radio Program: My Uncle Dick
On August 11, my uncle, who was also my godfather, died. Dick wasn’t a birder, but he was an avid fisherman who noticed birds and talked about them to me a lot. He used to hunt, but one time when he held the warm, limp body of a duck he’ d killed, it suddenly just seemed too sad—at that moment, he lost his taste for hunting and simply quit. He still fished a lot, and told me that one time he felt a little sad watching a fish die, but then he said he remembered that fish eat their own young, so what could they expect?
Fishing was Dick’s main excuse to get outdoors into the natural world, which was a far cry from where he actually lived, in a high-rise overlooking Montrose Harbor in Chicago. Dick was a Chicago firefighter who was famous in the department both for bravery and for being able to withstand more heat and smoke than just about anyone, which may have ultimately led to the lung cancer that killed him. He was named Chicago Firefighter of the Year in 1972.
Bird lives are simpler than ours. They don’t have loose ends to take care of before they die—relatives they haven’t talked to in a while, insurance policies to keep up, promises to keep, altered plans. Birds don’t dream of and plan for a retirement for years and then get sick the year it finally comes. They don’t plan much in the first place. When one gets a hankering to see Costa Rica, it doesn’t spend months planning out an itinerary and booking a flight—it just heads on out when the time seems right, no clothes, no luggage, no worries about monetary units or foreign languages. Birds don’t even keep track of their frequent flier mileage. And they don’t have the foggiest notion of what retirement means, either—most elderly birds still raise babies every year. They have no concept of estate planning or inheritance taxes. Birds don’t have time to consider any of this before they die anyway. Cancer is a lot slower than a peregrine falcon headed straight for you, talons extended. Birds do get cancer, but like other avian diseases, once it weakens a wild bird, it doesn’t take long for a predator to discover and dispatch it.
A lot of ornithologists and ethologists maintain that birds lack self-awareness, and thus have no concept of death. That may, of course, be true, but there are a lot of people who think teenagers don’t have a concept of mortality, either. I’ve seen Sharp-shinned Hawks kill migrating Blue Jays on many occasions, and each time, the dead bird’s flock mates yelled their heads off for a long time afterward, with different sounds than when they’re mobbing a potential predator before it makes off with one of their acquaintances. Some people say animals can’t feel bereavement and simply don’t miss departed companions, but that seems more of a religious belief system rather than science, dismissing something outside their experience, just as doctors used to firmly maintain that babies had no sense of pain. Of course, it’s awfully tricky to devise scientific tests to discover exactly what goes on in a bird brain, or even an ape’s or dolphin’s. But I have my suspicious.
I have a Blue Jay I used to keep in a cage next to my Blue Jay Sneakers’s cage until Sneakers died. Now, almost three years later, sometimes BJ gets a little quiet and seems sad to me, and those days, he whistles the same tune and makes the same unique little call notes that Sneakers used to. The only thing I can conclude is that when BJ misses Sneakers’ presence he tries to fill the empty space with Sneakers’ voice. Humans and jays, we’re all on this little planet for a finite time—much too short to waste arguing about whether death is any sadder to us humans than it is to animals. It’s just plain sad, and that’s all there is to it.