North Coast Journal

by Miv Schaaf

Birds and responsible dogs

A bird is sitting in the top of the eucalyptus tree in the pouring rain. It's a big bird, maybe a hawk. It is up there in the bare top branches right where it gets the most rain. It knows about being drier under leaves; it must like the rain.

Can't see well enough to tell if its head is under its wing or not. Its feathers are waterproof. I suppose it's dry and warm under those feathers.

Funny, we couldn't sleep; our legs don't have that peculiarly efficient ratchet arrangement of bones that locks birds' legs into place. They can go to sleep and not even think about falling.

Odd, birds never do anything by mistake. They never aim at a branch and miss, or fall off a limb, make a bad landing, never get lost, flying in the wrong direction. Cincinnati? I was aiming at Florida, isn't this Florida?

Instinct is so much more practical. Baby pelicans never say Fish? - I'm supposed to catch fish and eat them? Why should I? Hummingbirds never think Oh gosh, I can't build a nest like that. We think we're so much smarter but we can't even keep dry or build a house or get anywhere without help the way the birds can.

There is no indecision on the part of the birds either. Shall we go to Minnesota or Michigan this summer? Do you really think the children are ready to fly today, dear, shouldn't we wait another week?

Wonder how my eucalyptus bird feels up there. Do animals just exist - no questions, no ideas, no reconsiderations, no appreciation? Does the badger in its burrow ever think with a satisfied little shake Oh, it is nice and cozy down here. Probably not.

Well, animals may be without ideas, less complicated, but they're also less dependent. And less dangerous - we are the ones, not the animals, who imperil the world. Wars are a human invention. Evil arises from intelligence, from philosophy, from a crafty kind of thinking unknown to animals. Amazing how we feel superior.

Yet, sometimes, we think we sense something in animals, some sort of an intellectual relation. We had a turtle that liked to be talked to and patted on the head; he did not like it if you patted and didn't talk.

And this dog - did you ever see a dog with such a sense of responsibility? I am here, he seems to be thinking, to take care of things, see that things are right. Unlike this dizzy rattlebrained pup beside me, I know my job, I am a very responsible dog. Yes, he is a very responsible dog.

I wonder if we take advantage of animals, especially dogs, training them, scolding them, teaching them to live as we live, unnaturally, imposing such a corrosive human emotion as guilt on an animal. That garbage was so good, tasty bit of fish down there at the bottom, but she's yelling; did something wrong I guess. "Bad dog. Such a good dog." Who are we to pronounce such moral judgments?

Now there are four more birds, all the same kind. Surely there aren't five hawks in this neighborhood? Black in the rain, etched against a gray sky. Wait - in one blink of an eye a whole bunch of little birds float down, dotting branches all in rows like clothespins.

No chippering - somehow I always expect birds in bunches to talk. Swish - in one silent, sudden lift all of them arc up, turn south, flying into the wind. The branches look barer, like frozen clotheslines.

After consideration the five hawks rise, unhurriedly, heavier in the rain. They fly east, together, as if they had a course of action. Decision, apparently unanimous, without a conference, a word, a road map, completely free of our civilized encumbrances. From our window, prisoner of the rain, sheltered by our mortgages, I watch them go.

Miv Schaaf, a Fieldbrook resident, wrote a column, Things, twice a week for 15 years for the Los Angeles Times.

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