For the Birds Radio Program: Unspeakable Horror

Original Air Date: Sept. 13, 2001

Laura got a phone call Wednesday from someone at the airport needing help.

Duration: 4′45″


Suddenly America is a small town, and everyone, everywhere, is pulling together in shock and horror. How can I even be thinking about birds in the face of New York and Washington? I was listening to chickadees at my window feeder as I worked on my computer when my phone rang Tuesday, I turned on the radio, and my world was changed, probably forever. I ran to the TV and watched, trying to keep my eyes on the panicked pigeons fluttering madly in the sky as smoke billowed, so I wouldn’t see the human beings falling or leaping from the building, nor imagine the ones inside burning to death at that moment before my eyes. And I froze in horror at the unspeakable images of a building I have admired from afar and actually been inside, as first one, and then the second, tower collapsed with thousands of human beings still inside.

It’s impossible to make sense of any of this. Impossible not to be overwhelmed with sadness and anger, hatred and fear. That night I fell asleep to the roar of military jets, and woke Wednesday to grim news reports of just how few survivors were found in the rubble. And then at 8 a.m., my phone rang, and a man identifying himself from Northwest Airlines maintenance asked to speak to me. I was shaken, my thoughts of airplanes inextricably blended with the tragedy. But this call turned out to be about a bird. Some of the people at the airbus maintenance facility in Duluth had found a wounded pigeon being attacked by crows, and were asking me to help it.

Imagine that. Numbed as they must have been by the horrifying evil committed using passenger planes, here was an airplane maintenance crew taking time to help a bird. And giving me something constructive to do. Donating blood and money seem necessary but not sufficient when people in our community are suffering, even people a thousand miles away. Deep inside us we need to do more-something to directly help SOMEONE right here right now, even if that someone is only a racing pigeon wearing leg bands, missing her tail and bearing a gaping wound under her right wing-possibly hit by a hawk or falcon while rushing home in a race. She’ s been well-tended by her owner-I can tell by the confiding way she burrows her head under my arm when I hold her. I couldn’t help but think of the many pigeons that have carried messages during wartime, like Cher Ami, who saved a battalion, staying on course even after her leg was shot off. Somehow even that feat seems diminished in the face of the heroic people resisting the hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93, the New York firefighters heading into the burning towers and climbing up the stairs to do what they could knowing the building could collapse at any moment, the flight attendant who overcame unimaginable terror to call her airline on her cell phone and lucidly tell them what was happening and give them the seat numbers of the terrorists. I witnessed overwhelming, heartbreaking goodness over and over on television, and witnessed it live in the eyes of these compassionate Airbus people helping a hurt pigeon.

Over the next few days and weeks we’ll be increasingly horrified as rescue workers sift through debris for bits and pieces of human bodies to place in orange plastic bag after orange plastic bag. Unbearable sights and sounds and smells will be borne, because we are strong. Our species’ horrific capacity for evil will be more than matched by our capacity for compassion and heroism, courage and gentleness, strength of will and wisdom. The humaneness that somehow impels us to care for a wounded pigeon also gives us the strength and compassion to care for thousands of burned and injured people, and respectfully and tenderly handle the remains of unbearable numbers of dead. What a piece of work is man.