The difficulty for birds, in a political climate like this, is that they are just profoundly poor. To put it as strongly as possible: they subsist on bugs. Also on worms, seeds, weeds, buds, rodents, minnows, pond greens, grubs, and garbage. A few lucky species—what birders call "trash birds"—cadge a living in urban neighborhoods, but to find more interesting species it's best to go to sketchy areas: sewage ponds, landfills, foul-smelling mudflats, railroad rights-of-way, abandoned buildings, tamarack swamps, thornbushes, tundra, weedy slashes, slime-covered rocks in shallow lagoons, open plains of harsh sawgrass, manure pits on dairy farms, ankle-turning desert washes. The species that reside in and around these bird ghettos are themselves fairly lucky. It's the birds with more expensive tastes, the terns and plovers that insist on beachfront housing, the murrelets and owls that nest in old-growth forests, that end up on endangered-species lists.

Birds not only want to use our valuable land, they're also hopelessly unable to pay for it. In Minnesota, north of Duluth, on an overcast morning when the temperature was hovering near ten, I saw a clan of white-winged crossbills, a flock of muted reds and golds and greens, crawling all over the apex of a snowy spruce tree. They weighed less than an ounce apiece, they'd been outdoors all winter, they were flashy in their feather coats, the spruce cones were apparently delicious to them, and even as I envied them their sociability in the snow I worried for their safety in the for-profit future now plotted by the conservatives in Washington. In this future, a small percentage of people will win the big prize—the Lincoln Navigator, the mansion with a two-story atrium and a five-acre lawn, the second home in Laguna Beach—and everybody else will be offered electronic simulacra of luxuries to wish for. The obvious difficulty for crossbills in this future is that crossbills don't want the Navigator. They don't want the atrium or the amenities of Laguna. What crossbills want is boreal forests where they can crack open seed cones with their parrot-of-the-northland bills. When our atmospheric carbon raises global temperatures by another five degrees, and our remaining unlogged boreal forests succumb to insects emboldened by the shorter winters, and cross-bills run out of places to live, the "ownership society" isn't going to help them. Their standard of living won't be improvable by global free trade. Not even the pathetic state lottery will be an option for them then.

In Florida, at the Estero Lagoon at Fort Myers Beach, where, according to my guidebook, I was likely to find "hundreds" of red knots and Wilson's plovers, I instead found a Jimmy Buffett song playing on the Holiday Inn beachfront sound system and a flock of gulls loitering on the white sand behind the hotel. It was happy hour. As I was scanning the flock, making sure that it consisted entirely of ring-billed gulls and laughing gulls, a tourist came over to take pictures. She kept moving closer, absorbed in her snapshots, and the flock amoebically distanced itself from her, some of the gulls hopping a little in their haste, the group murmuring uneasily and finally breaking into alarm cries as the woman bore down with her pocket digital camera. How, I wondered, could she not see that the gulls only wanted to be left alone? Then again, the gulls didn't seem to mind the Jimmy Buffett. The animal who most clearly wanted to be left alone was me. Farther down the beach, still looking for the promised throngs of red knots and Wilson's plovers, I came upon a particularly charmless stretch of muddy sand on which there were a handful of more common shorebirds, dunlins and semipalmated plovers and least sandpipers, in their brownish-gray winter plumage. Camped out amid high-rise condos and hotels, surveying the beach in postures of sleepy disgruntlement, with their heads scrunched down and their eyes half shut, they looked like a little band of misfits. Like a premonition of a future in which all birds will either collaborate with modernity or go off to die someplace quietly. What I felt for them went beyond love. I felt outright identification.
"My Bird Problem" excerpted from The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. © 2006


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