Saturday, March 24, 2018

The radical otherness of birds: Jonathan Franzen on why they matter

When someone asks me why birds are so important to me, all I can do is sigh and shake my head, as if I’ve been asked to explain why I love my brothers. And yet the question is a fair one: why do birds matter? My answer might begin with the vast scale of the avian domain. If you could see every bird in the world, you’d see the whole world. Things with feathers can be found in every corner of every ocean and in land habitats so bleak that they’re habitats for nothing else. Grey gulls raise their chicks in Chile’s Atacama desert, one of the driest places on Earth.

Emperor penguins incubate their eggs in Antarctica in winter. Goshawks nest in the Berlin cemetery where Marlene Dietrich is buried, sparrows in Manhattan traffic lights, swifts in sea caves, vultures on Himalayan cliffs, chaffinches in Chernobyl. The only forms of life more widely distributed than birds are microscopic. To survive in so many different habitats, the world’s 10,000 or so bird species have evolved into a spectacular diversity of forms. They range in size from the ostrich, which can reach 2.7 metres (9ft) in height and is widespread in Africa, to the aptly named bee hummingbird, found only in Cuba. Their bills can be massive (pelicans, toucans), tiny (weebills) or as long as the rest of their body (sword-billed hummingbirds). Some birds – the painted bunting in Texas, Gould’s sunbird in South Asia, the rainbow lorikeet in Australia – are gaudier than any flower. Others come in one of the nearly infinite shades of brown that tax the vocabulary of avian taxonomists: rufous, fulvous, ferruginous, bran-coloured, foxy.


Birds are no less diverse behaviourally. Some are highly social, others anti. African queleas and flamingos gather in flocks of millions, and parakeets build whole parakeet cities out of sticks. Dippers walk alone and underwater, on the beds of mountain streams, and a wandering albatross may glide on its three-metre wingspan 500 miles away from any other albatrosses. I’ve met friendly birds, like the New Zealand fantail that once followed me down a trail, and I’ve met mean ones, like the caracara in Chile that swooped down and tried to knock my head off when I stared at it too long. 

Roadrunners kill rattlesnakes for food by teaming up on them, one bird distracting the snake while another sneaks up behind it. Bee-eaters eat bees. Leaftossers toss leaves. Thick-billed murres can dive underwater to a depth of 213 metres (700ft), peregrine falcons downward through the air at 240 miles an hour. A wren-like rushbird can spend its entire life beside one half-acre pond, while a cerulean warbler may migrate to Peru and then find its way back to the tree in New Jersey where it nested the year before… read more:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/23/the-radical-otherness-of-birds-jonathan-franzen-on-why-they-matter