For the Birds Radio Program: Dead Birds

Original Air Date: Nov. 20, 1992 Rerun Dates: Feb. 1, 1999

Laura loves studying avian physiology, but even as she dissects a dead bird to learn the inside story, she grieves the loss. (Date confirmed)

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Roger Tory Peterson often said that the reason he was so attracted to birds is that they are “the most vivid expression of life itself.” Consider the chickadee, its hot blood pumped through its arteries by a heart beating a thousand times every minute, drawing 100 breaths each minute. A chickadee can live this high speed life for over a decade. This tiny bundle of enthusiasm embraces every moment of its hard and dangerous life with cheerful eagerness.

Other birds may not be as jolly as the chickadee, but all birds live life more intensely than we mammals do. To me, a dead bird is an affront to the order of the universe—an obscenity.

Dead birds are smaller than life ones. When I first started picking up dead birds—road- and cat- and window-kills—I thought it was just my imagination—that they merely seemed smaller than living birds. But it’s really true. Live birds are bigger. The lungs of birds are flat and woven into their back rib cage. Bird lungs don’t expand and contract with breathing. Instead, air passes through the lungs into bellows-like air sacs. These sacs fill large spaces inside the bird’s whole body. A sizable percent of a bird’s volume is nothing more than air, and when the bird dies, much of its body literally collapses.

I study birds inside and out, and find avian physiology as poetic as song and flight. I can dissect a dead bird without a speck of queasiness, but I can’t dissect it without aching for the life that is gone. The structure of a bird’s heart is beautiful, but that heart is supposed to be pulsing with life, not stilled forever.

When I was a girl, my big brother used to show me the ducks and pheasants he’d shot, because i was the only one in the family who was interested. One by one, he’d pull his prizes out of the bag, and I was fascinated—I couldn’t pull my eyes from those perfectly formed feathers—the improbable color and beauty. But looking at those dead birds, limp and diminished, struck a dissonant note in me. I’d watch as he plucked the birds and cleaned them out—I even helped him, so he couldn’t accuse me of being wimpy or a girl, but I couldn’t look into the lifeless faces and eyes of those birds without my own eyes filling with tears. A bird is so vital—so intensely alive—and the, in the flash of a shotgun blast, or a speeding car, or an unexpected picture window—it is transformed to something limp and meaningless. The F-16 that crashed after colliding with a flock of plovers can be rebuilt for 27 million dollars. The entire national deficit isn’t large enough to rebuild a single four-ounce golden plover.

The tragedy of human–and of all animal–existence is that everything takes its life’s energy from others. Geese eat plants, foxes and hunters eat geese, and even I have eaten my share of Golden Plump chickens. We accept this as a fact of life, and usually we don’t notice the sadness of individual avian death. People like me who want to preserve whole species of birds were even ridiculed and dismissed by one President of the United States as “that Spotted Owl crowd” and “Ozone men.” But pity and compassion become us as human beings. If God himself takes note of the fall of a sparrow, should we do less?