NOT KNOWING

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White-winged Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera), male. Photo credit: John Harrison, accessed via Wikipedia

A few weeks ago, I was quite surprised to see some birds in my backyard that are not supposed to be here. 

I watched them carefully for a minute or so until they scattered away. I spent a couple hours staring at a photo of them that my wife took of them while digging through my bird identification books. And then I wrote back and forth with some people I know that are much better birders than I for a couple of days before I really could confirm what I had seen. They were white-winged crossbills. 

These birds aren’t really supposed to be here (depending on who you ask, I guess). Their nearest home turf is in the higher latitudes of Canada. But Larry and Harry, the co-authors of this column, were able to fill me in on the fact that these birds do occasionally show up here, be it only once a decade or so. It was news to me. 

It turns out that these crossbills can be “irruptive,” which means that every once in a blue moon some environmental factors trigger something in their bird brains and a whole bunch of these birds will up and leave their regular habitat and confuse a lot of people (like myself; but not Larry or Harry) by appearing suddenly in places where they aren’t really “supposed” to be. The trigger is usually a poor food crop (these particular birds love spruce cones) in their home range, and the hope that there might be better food somewhere else. So, away they go. Far, far from home. Where they have maybe never been. Looking for spruce cones. 

This is odd behavior, really. Different from the annual, regular and repetitive migrations that most of us are used to picturing. This is something else: random in a way, but not arbitrary. Surprising, but systematic. Bold. Daring. Intrepid. 

Whatever it is, what it triggers in me is the sense that I really know nothing about anything. Or mostly nothing, anyhow. I don’t know at all what it’s like to be a bird, although I could try to imagine (poorly). I certainly don’t know how, if I were a bird, I would know when or how or why to leave my home range, where I was born, and where many generations before me were born, to head into the unknown in search of spruce cones in lands that I had never seen, in a place that may or may not even have spruce cones. To visit somebody’s backyard for a while and then leave.

Do these small birds sense and understand and know things about the world that I can’t even begin to approach? Absolutely. 

So I find myself at a bit of a loss as far as how to proceed. 

More and more, it stares me in the face: to assume that other animals see what we see, or that we see what they see, is to fundamentally misunderstand a great deal of how life on this planet exists. Our human perspective is not a privileged view of the world.

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