What are birds? We just don’t know.
Or, that’s the opinion of the “fake science” show, Look Around You, which gave us the wonderful image above.
But really… what are birds? That’s something you have to ask, as a bird-kin, because it’s also part of exploring the question, what am I? Biology has some simple answers: a bird has feathers, and birds are the only living animals that have feathers. A bird also has a bill and lays eggs, though they are not the only animals that do (the duck-billed platypus is a famous example).
But, like I said in my previous essay about this, “Finding Bird”, that does not really describe “what is a bird”, on the level we want to know. When we ask, “what is a human”, we don’t say, “a human is a biped, with skin and hair”. That’s a scientific description of a human, but it’s not what we want to know. Anyone can see that, and it doesn’t mean much to us. Instead we talk about things like tool-using, story-telling, civilisation.
So, in this style, what is the nature of the bird experience? That’s a problem, because, unlike humans, birds are just too different. Some birds fly, some birds run, some birds swim. Some birds are tiny, some birds are huge. I said in “Finding Bird” that maybe, it is “movement” that defines a bird. Marjorie Allen Seiffert agrees, in her poem, The Shining Bird, that a bird’s movement is more important to the “bird nature” than their body: “A bird is three things: Feathers, flight and song, and feathers are the least of these.” In this poem, she suggests that the bird’s energy and spirit, “flight and song”, are a vital part of bird nature. Literally, vital: meaning, “giving life”. Movement, and the passionate and active spirit that gives birds their loud voices, give the bird life, and it is this vital energy, life energy, that shows through in all the actions of the bird. From the ostrich to the penguin to the hawk to the hummingbird, birds are busy, active, “doing” creatures.
That’s my first thought. Definitely, I think “movement” is an important part of being a bird. But I wonder too, if there is something else. Many animals are known for movement: an ant does not often stand still. But, I don’t feel like kin to an ant. I don’t feel like kin to a fish, who is always swimming, and even moves in a three-dimensional space, in flocks that seem to know when the rest of the flock will turn, just like birds. So, I wonder, is there some deeper, core “bird nature”?
I saw this thoughtful post recently, by a dragon kin, and I think it might capture the heart of what we are looking for:
Dragons all have something in common with other dragons, but they cannot say what it is. They dont know. They’ll try to discuss it anyway, because they like to ponder, but they know that the thing they have in common with each other is visible only in small shared moments, and not visible in an attempt at a larger concept.
It is not the answer, but maybe, it is somewhere to begin. There is obviously something that birds have in common with other birds. We are happy when we find each other, we look for each other in the bigger therian community. We want to share this thing, “birdness”. We feel it, this connection of kin. But we can not say what it is.
Last night, I was thinking about this, and I tried to explore the idea: does a non-therian bird know what “birdness” is? Does the chickadee recognise shared nature in the hawk, does the penguin recognise shared nature in the ostrich? And I thought, probably not. Birds of a feather flock together, but to a snow goose, an eagle still is the enemy. I don’t think that it’s likely that birds have an idea that all birds, even their enemies, are bound to them by a tie of species. So, I started to wonder, maybe this thing we are looking for, bird nature, can’t exist. If birds with bird bodies don’t recognise it, then, it must be something that we are imagining. After all, the scientific category, “bird”, is just that: a human scientific group, invented to be convenient. It doesn’t mean anything about the inside nature of these beings. It only describes, where they come from.
But, then, I thought back to a time in my history: my young life, when I thought all human faces were scary. In some level, I experience that all mammals look to me… not frightening, not any more, but alien. The whole idea of a “nose”. The smells, the hair, the paws. Mammals have a particular look to me, and that look is, “something that is not me”.
And I wonder: maybe “bird nature” in the wild, is not “knowing that you are a bird”, but, “knowing that these other beings are not birds”. Maybe, it is a shared bond by what we find alien, that helps us to understand what we find natural. And, isn’t it true, part of being a human, is looking at other animals and knowing, “this is not me. This being is alive, but a very different kind of being from me”. It’s reasonable to think that a bird looks at a mammal, and though the bird does not know they are a bird in that direct way, they do know that the mammal is not a bird. Even the face of a hawk to a chickadee, might be frightening, but it is familiar. The way the hawk moves, the appearance of the face, the feather-covered body… it’s not alien.
So, maybe that is the lost “birdness” that we can not hold. Because it is something so simple, that it actually can be changed just a little to describe all therians: we look at bird and see home, when we do not see home in the faces of other kinds.
It doesn’t seem like much. But, it seems that something about it is enough to bind us.
What are birds? We just don’t know. But maybe, we know what we are not… and that tells us what we are, in a less than direct way. We know that we are lost and strange in the world, even more than mammals, and we find our home in a more distant place.