This Post Is For the Birds

Originally posted by O Ceallaigh on the discontinued blog Felloffatruck Publications, 15 May 2007. Reposted here, with updates, in support of a retrospective currently ongoing at the Dude & Dude site.

When I was a boy … Yes, I was a boy once. At least that’s what it says on the birth certificate, and in the bathroom. But we’ve been through this already. Still. While all the real boys were hanging out on ball fields and in slot car parlors, I constantly bugged my parents to take me to greenhouses. Where I could commune with the tropical plants. And to pet shops, where I could gaze at the tropical animals.

Well, either I’m entering into my second childhood, or I’ve already died and gone to heaven. ‘Cause here I am sitting in Honolulu, and I swear somebody let all the birds in the pet shop loose in the greenhouse.

Yes. This post is really about birds. The ones with feathers. What were you thinking?

I mean, really. I walk through a lawn covered with Java Sparrows …

Java Sparrow

and I remember seeing these things for sale in the finch cage of every pet store in New England. I read (click on the picture) that Java Sparrows are now more common in Hawai’i than in their native Indonesia.

I’m sitting at a picnic table on the University of Hawaiʻi campus, trying to eat my lunch while a dozen feathered moochers are giving me the hairy eyeball. Greenbacks and the magic plastic be damned; how dare I deprive them of their rightful sustenance?

Now, I’m sure that anyone who has ever eaten lunch outside on a summer’s day in Europe or North America is used to this blatant guilt tripping by the starlings, house sparrows, pigeons on the grass alas, and, of course, the dreaded squirrel birds. One of the saddest sights of my life was that of the house sparrows at a McDonalds in Seattle. They were so greasy, they were fire hazards. Somebody should shoot a video of these birds and append it to the DVD of Super Size Me as a special feature. Not that the profits of Mickey D’s would notice.

Honolulu has house sparrows and pigeons. I mean, doesn’t everybody? But they’re not the big players in the begging game around here.

Zebra DoveLeading the charge are the Zebra Doves, birds that look and act like pigeons but are actually about the size of starlings. They don’t seem to come in groups of less than 150, and they’ll hop right up on the table and stare you down. “Ubi est mea (Where’s mine)?” Funny. I thought these birds were from Asia. Not Chicago.

Spotted DoveRight behind them are the Spotted Doves, pigeon-like birds that actually are the size of pigeons. They might be bigger than the Zebra Doves, but they’re no braver. They seem content to hang with the Zebras and let them do the shock-troop bit, then wade in and eat what they haven’t earned. Maybe they should be called Dean Doves.

Common MynaPerched overhead, waiting for a chance to swoop down and snatch something, are the Common Mynas, from India. Myna birds are related to starlings, but are prettier, and can be taught to talk, though none that I have seen has seen fit to say anything. Perhaps from the lack of worthy role models. I keep wondering what Hawaiʻi did to deserve this. Perhaps one day it will get its act together, correct its errors, and mend its fences. So that India will deem it worthy, and send its majah birds.

Red-Crested CardinalThe red flash of the Red-Crested Cardinals (from South America) is startling when these birds launch themselves from the rims of trash cans, and is still more startling when they launch themselves from under your feet, when you have the damned gall to move and disturb their quest for the crumbs you dropped.

I finish my lunch, surviving the collective disdain of half the avifauna of Honolulu, and head back to work, musing on the fact that none of these birds was found on the Hawaiian Islands before Europeans arrived. The same is true of the plants. Nearly all have been brought in from someplace else, and are growing rampant throughout the inhabited places of the islands.

Amakihi_common_winter_oahu_hawaii_monte-m-taylorBut there is one exception. I have seen them, looking down on a flowering acacia tree from my fourth-story dorm room (temporary lodging while I wait to get paid and seek such better things as can be afforded on an academic’s salary in this part of the world – which ain’t much), and I see them now, green Christmas ornaments on a Cassia tree. They are the Amakihi, one of the few Hawaiian endemic honeyeating birds to survive in the European urbanity that now dominates O’ahu.

I stare in wonder at the sight. Until, just before it was too late (for once), I remember that most sacred of adages about bird-watching.

A bird in the hand is safer than one overhead.

Unstained, this time, I wander back to my hired bed.

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