Bird in the hand

First published at A Motley Vision,  this essay explores the  nature of  stewardship by wondering if  we understand what stewardship is or  if we’ve  merely assumed that we understand.   Are we fully conscious of the needs of other creatures, as good stewards ought to be? Are we imaginative enough to visualize the possibilities of faithful stewardship, which may include providing other species with opportunities for €¦ oh, I don’t know €¦ progression, maybe …  or  perhaps gaining  from them insight that  endows our own progression?

An abridged version of “Bird in the Hand”  was published in 2007  in  Glyphs III,  a regional  anthology containing  writings by local writers and visitors to  southeastern Utah’s  redrock  country  that Moab Poets and Writers publishes every two years.    I’ve written more  about MP &W  here.    

In July 2005 my brother Jim and I threw camping gear into his new Toyota 4Runner and headed for a canyon in the San Rafael Swell. The object of our trip: try out the 4Runner on real four-wheel-drive roads and see petroglylphs at the canyon’s mouth. We arrived at the canyon at dusk and as evening fell  helped each other wrestle up tents in a whipping canyon wind.

After admiring the rock art the next morning we decided to explore the canyon and looked for possible routes in. To our left lay a boulder field littered with obstacles too imposing for my taste. €œWe’re not going that way, € I said, but as I turned away, my eye caught rapid movement just at the edge of my field of vision. €œWhat’s that? €

Jim didn’t answer, just looked. Focusing, I made out long black wings beating at the canyon’s wall, and flashes of white. Some black and white bird fluttered near the ground. With the exception of magpies, black and white is an unusual color scheme for birds living in remote sandstone deserts.   But the Swell  is not magpie country—too few  trees.   And what was  the bird doing? Curiosity drew me toward it. It appeared to be trying to scrabble up the canyon wall, but its feet clutched ineffectively at the dirt and rock. It beat its wings furiously trying to help itself up.

Absorbed in its mysterious task the bird  seemed not to  notice my approach. It appeared swallow-like in body, with long, sharp, angled wings of the sort that slice air. But drawing closer, I saw those wings had a fourteen- to sixteen-inch-wingspan €”too broad for any swallows I knew of. €œThis must be some member of the swift family, € I mused. The bird continued fluttering against the wall, prompting me to wonder if it was sick or injured or maybe old. Sometimes it slipped down the cliff face and pushed itself back up on its €œelbows, € crawling in the way I’ve seen grounded bats crawl.

Wonder built in my brain, welling up, until in an irrepressible act I asked, €œWhat are you doing? €

I didn’t expect a reply, but many humans aren’t conscious of the compelling effects of spoken-aloud questions, either upon each other or upon animals. Marketers know something about it. They use questions as hooks: “How are you folks this evening?”   €œMind if I ask you a question? € €œWhat cell phone service do you use? € Before people can stop themselves they answer, opening the door to the sales pitch.

But well-asked questions have music to them, a directness of intent marked by tone and tilts in the voice throughout and then again at the end. The words WHAT are you DO-ing have rhythm. Many animals know rhythm. It’s in their feet and wings €”it plays in their heartbeats. Their own languages depend upon rhythms and variations in rhythms. Some studies assert that rhythm, phrasal repetitions, even rhyme act as mnemonic devices for species that employ them in their songs. Why might that be? Because at the very least, rhythm rises from the depths of the creature, from its organs and other very basic structures of the body. In all singing species, the singer is the song.

At the noise of my question, the bird stopped scrabbling. Looking over its shoulder it identified me as the source of the sounds it had just heard and turned to face me. With a drunken walk it hobbled over till it stood between my feet.

What is this?   Is it thinking of attacking?

I repressed an impulse to step back.    Reflecting on that moment, I believe now that  a rapid exchange of information occurred in  those few seconds as  the bird and I  considered  each other.     I read the bird’s behavior for expressions of intent; it read mine for the same, and perhaps for something more.  

Looking down at the bird, whose head tilted up looking, I supposed, at my face, I asked, €œWhat do you want? € The bird  started  scrabbling at the leg of my jeans in the same way it had the rock wall.

Years of experience with small things tugging at my pant leg or trying to climb up my body prompted me to lean over and put my hand in front of it. I bumped my finger against its underside the way I’ve seen cockatiel owners encourage their birds to step onto their fingers. Still, I  felt wonder and astonishment  when the bird stepped into my hand, folded up its long, black wings and settled against my open palm.

A bird in the hand weighs nothing. If I had closed my eyes I might have doubted that the very slight weight I felt against the skin of my palm was anything at all €”flight itself, perhaps, come to rest for a moment, dimpling the skin of my open hand. What is the worth of such weightlessness? For birds born to navigate upper regions of the breathable air for extended periods of flight, as I found out later this one was, such insubstantiality translates into boundless wealth.

Overcome with wonder and the intoxication of physical contact with a willing wild bird, I could barely focus on its face. But something seemed wrong with its eyes, or maybe the bird, exhausted  from its struggle with the cliff, had merely closed its eyes as it rested in my hand. I couldn’t tell for certain what I saw in that black head with mere glints for eyes. Carrying the bird back to the rock face, I lifted it higher up on the wall where it had seemed to be trying to go. It stepped onto the ground there, turned, spread its wings, and sailed unsteadily back to the canyon floor.

It returned to me. Again I lifted it to the rock shelf; again it turned and sailed down. It didn’t want to get up on the shelf €”at least, that didn’t appear to be quite what it wanted. I had a powerful desire to help this animal that seemed to be asking something of me, but because I didn’t understand the bird’s nature or condition I couldn’t think what to do.

One obvious idea was that through accident, illness, or old age, the bird had  come to the farthest reaches of its life,    lost its  powers of flight,  and ought to be €œput out of its misery. € But because I didn’t know what I was looking at I didn’t feel it appropriate to dispense €œmercy € as per that old and merciless cliché. Perhaps the bird had merely suffered some injury it could heal from in time.

The bird didn’t ask a third time. It fluttered away from me, its long, fine wings extended, touching elbows to the ground for stability.

Jim had stood several yards off observing but saying nothing. €œI don’t know what we can do for it, € I admitted as we watched it wobble away. We continued our hike up the canyon.

But the incident had thrown me into confusion. My usual appetite for outdoor adventure had gone and I could no longer focus on what we were doing. Questions banged in my head, all of them echoes of the big question: What had just happened?

Once at home, I looked for answers. Bird-watching friends helped me identify  the bird as a white-throated swift, Aeronautes saxatalis, a bird I’d never heard of. But identifying the bird only raised more questions. My friends recommended I talk with Merrill Webb, a birding enthusiast and biology teacher at the Utah County Academy of Sciences, a charter school on the Utah Valley  University campus.

From Merrill I learned more about the swift’s remarkable qualities. A migratory species, white-throated swifts arrive in Utah during May from points south, including Mexico and Central America. An almost exclusively aerial species, they forage on flying insects and spend most of their lives in high-speed, agile flight. In Utah (and perhaps all of North America) only the peregrine falcon is known to be faster. One white-throated swift is reputed to hold the world record for sustained flight—three years without landing.

White-throated swifts don’t even land to mate. Merrill said that one of the most breathtaking scenes a birder can witness is the mating flight of these swifts as they come sweeping along the face of a cliff or through a canyon at breakneck speeds, copulating pairs tumbling through the air.

With a wingspan of up to sixteen inches, it’s remarkable that such a vigorous flyer weighs in at 1 ¼ ounce or less. Truly, I had held in my hand a creature of stunning qualities.

Now I knew something about the bird, but nothing I heard or read explained my experience. That the white-throated swift belongs to the order Apodiformes, subfamily Apodinae, which means €œwithout feet, € might have been my first clue. Merrill Webb had mentioned that white-throated swifts have tiny, nearly useless feet. They can cling to cliff faces with  them  but climbing  cliffs or walking for any distance they cannot do.

Internet searches provided a possible key to the mystery. Birding articles from the U.K. and Europe said that if a swift becomes grounded for any reason—for instance, harsh winds—its physiological combination of long wings and feet unserviceable on terra firma render it incapable of regaining flight.

The articles told how some who had found grounded swifts took them to the highest point they could find in the surrounding landscape and threw the birds off into open air, returning them to their lives. None of the articles I read told of swifts approaching the people who found them. But I wonder if such birds as inhabit otherwise uninhabitable spaces, especially in remote locations as they do in Utah, with few if any predators able to threaten them, might live in rare confidence like the birds and reptiles of the Galapagos Islands.

Of course the bird might have been addled by illness or injury.  But I think now that  the rough wind  my brother and I had  struggled with the night before had knocked  the swift  down, maybe by dislodging it from its evening roost or  nest on a nearby cliff. Whatever its circumstances, I understood at last that what I ought to have done to give the swift its best chance was to take it to the highest rock outcrop I could climb and throw the bird off, something that if were done to me would insure my death. And perhaps that partially explains my failure in the encounter. Thinking within the boundaries of my ignorance of this species and my own physical realities, the bird’s exigencies proved beyond me, though perhaps the bird itself had hoped for something better to happen between us.


5 thoughts on “Bird in the hand”

  1. I remember with some pain that these sort of things have happened to me from time to time. One was a friendly if confused little black Toto dog which I found but did not take home: six months later I saw it again, miserable, now unapproachable, a street stray, and I live with that regret to this day. I have had these dealings with people, too- when someone dropped a hint but I was ‘unavailable’. It doesn’t comfort, but at least we can aim to learn from these things.


  2. Yeah, I had one of those stray dog experiences. I couldn’t keep her because I was a single student renting (a situation I rebeled against at a later date with another dog). Like your dog, this one needed help (she had a horrible, infected gash on her side) and, once she trusted me, bonded hard and fast.

    I still remember sitting in a rocking chair in the living room reading the newspaper, her on the floor, and suddenly this fifty pound samoyed cross who barely let me touch her pushed the paper up and climbed up into my lap, pressed her body against me, and laid her head on my shoulder. Surprised, I dropped the newspaper. I could feel the waves of sadness rolling off this dog. I wrapped my arms around her and rocked her there. She let out this deep, deep sigh that seemed to come from the center of the most sorrow-stricken depths of the world.

    But the landlady saw her and forced me to give her up. I should have just found a way to move so we could stay together. Giving that dog away was a betrayal.

    Wait till I tell my snake story. That’s another heart-wrencher.

    We learn from these experiences. That we can’t learn from them fast enough–well, we just have to learn and do what we can.

    These events change us, suddenly and sharply.


  3. I have met the Aeronautes saxatalis and so many other wonders of Heavenly Fathers creations. It is beyond belief that some men still cling to their ridiculous assertion that it evolved by random chance.

    All things testify of Christ.


  4. Jim,

    All things testify of Christ.

    Including and especially, you, my friend.

    This is the post I meant to point you to earlier, the one I mentioned over at Snail Hollow on your San Rafael Swell post, but I forgot (see—you’re not the only one with memory problems). I’m glad you found it.


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