The other morning, outside of my NYC office, I watched as dozens of starlings landed on a pile of dirty snow and began scavenging busily for food, bits of refuse people had left: cigarette butts, a pizza crust, candy wrappers. I stood and watched them, watched as sparrows joined in, marveling at the idea that these birds were cleaning up after us, wondering how their health would be affected. Pecking and hopping, intent on their task, they kept a hurried pace as if there were some deadline by which to get this work done. And then, at some invisible signal, up the starlings went and then the sparrows, flying off together, each group with its own consensus.
I love to watch the flocking birds. Like herds of animals, shoals of fish, swarms of insects, they move with a collective intelligence, a cohesion, an alignment with each other. In flight they undulate and fold into each other – great sheets of birds moving on the wind. They fly as one being, hundreds, thousands together. Landing en masse in trees or fields, they blacken the surface of things. These are the commonest birds: red-winged blackbirds, grackles, starlings. In winter they forage in fields and pastures, sweeping down and eating whatever they can find. They are resourceful and hardy and prolific.
When I heard on the news that birds were falling from the sky by the hundreds in early January, I couldn’t help but make the connection between this event and the ferocious tornadoes that had ripped through that same region only days before. The news reports only stated that these were random events, mysterious, with no known cause. They sent dead birds off to the laboratory to see what was going on inside their bodies, ripping them apart to find the culprit. It must be in the bird. Research will be done to determine whether there is a parasite, virus or bacterium responsible for the deaths of all of these birds. If they find it, they will name it, blame it, and then think of ways of eradicating it.
On New Year’s Eve there were 17 tornadoes in that same area. People, houses, and vehicles were lifted up and hurled great distances. People died. Property was destroyed. Why is it so hard to imagine that these birds who spend so much of their life aloft might have been caught up in the violence of the atmosphere?
This seems such a perfect example of how myopic our science has become. In our pursuit of eliminating disease, we have lost sight of the bigger picture and much of our common sense. Instead of looking within ourselves and becoming attuned to nature, we look instead inside of dead birds, searching to understand something. Perhaps the birds fell from the sky as the result of something much larger and more global than a parasite. Perhaps it is time to stop focusing on smaller and smaller components and begin to look at the majesty of our world with a wider gaze.