At this time of year, it is still dark when I arrive home from work each evening. A few nights ago, I pulled up to the garage in the usual manner, hit the door opener, waited the required moments, and then drove slowly inside. Our garage is usually a mess, and is particularly disastrous right now. The leftovers from a kitchen renovation forlornly await their trip to the dump, and make even getting to and from my car akin to walking a mine field.
As I manoeuvred around the one pile that intrudes into my parking space, a bird fluttered past me, hovered as it tried to decide what to do in the corner of the garage, and then shot back past me on the way to the other side. This has happened a time or two — a bird somehow gets trapped in the garage, and we always have a hell of a time getting it out. A couple have died there.
I got out of the car and tried to shoo the bird out the garage door as I walked toward the house. I was ready to crash, but the thought of finding a dead bird the next morning made me pause. After getting out of my coat and putting my briefcase away, I decided that I would see if I could flush the bird out of the garage before supper. I tried to recruit Ayden, our six-year old grandson, as my assistant. Television was far too interesting for that, and so I went out on my own.
We have a three-bay garage, and at this point all but one is filled with junk. This made my bird chasing task more difficult.
After three or four trips from one side of the garage to the other, it became clear that the bird was terrified of the wide-open, huge dark spaces that meant its freedom. It occurred to me that the lights in the garage might be tricking it. It kept trying to fly out a window that that I could not open. The glass reflecting light back into the garage made the bird think that this was the way out. It flew into the window time and again. Whenever I tried to steer it out the garage doors, it veered wildly away.
This reminded me of something I read a long time ago about moths. They have an amazing navigational system that allows them to find their way by reference to the moon and stars. Ironically, the same system causes them to fly in ever smaller circles around an open flame, or light bulb, often causing their death. Evolution designed them over a long period of time in an environment where the lights were generally speaking so far away that they could be used as fixed navigational points. The kind of lights human beings use fool them into suicide.
I thought something similar might be happening with the bird. Its eyes were acclimatized to the light in the garage. It makes sense to me that birds would prefer to fly where they can see, instead of in the dark. It might be as simple as that.
Many human instincts appear to be dysfunctional in ways that are similar to what I’ve just described. In particular, our instinct to remain with our inherited tribe, even when it is sucking the life out of us, produces behavior strikingly reminiscent to moths flying ever closer to a flame or birds flying terrified away from dark doors.
In any event, it became clear to me that I was not going to be able to chase the bird out of my garage as long as it was light on the inside and dark outside. I knew that I would leave home in the morning before light, and therefore decided to try one more strategy before leaving the bird to fend for itself for another 24 hours.
By this time, I had several good looks at the bird. It was a medium-size sparrow; brown feathers, with delicate blue markings on each wing; a beauty. It was designed for short, quick flight as opposed to hovering. It laboured to stay aflight inside the garage. And, I recently heard a story about a fellow who ran down a deer. Apparently, you don’t have to be as fast as a deer to do this, but rather have to be able to keep the deer moving for long enough to exhaust it. I thought the same strategy might work with this bird. So, for the next several minutes, I scrambled around the garage staying close enough to prevent it from landing and resting. After the bird seemed barely able to stay in the air, I allowed it to alight on its favorite spot, beside the window against which it crashed at every opportunity. Odd, I thought, how much it likes that damn window in spite of the pain it has suffered there.
As the bird landed, clearly exhausted, I gently scooped it up. It did not resist until I had it in my hands, and then it fluttered wildly and released its bowels. I quickly walked the few steps to the nearest garage door, stepped out into the dark and gave the bird a gentle toss upwards. It rocketed out of sight.
What a series of disasters from the bird’s point of view. It had somehow ended up in a bad place. It was trapped, struggling to get out and smashing itself up in the process. However, what appeared to be an opening was barred by something invisible to the bird. Over and over again it ran into this barrier, no doubt injuring itself, but unable to behave differently. As always, it took special care to stay away from the dark places where it could not see its way. Then, one of those terrifying predators chased it to exhaustion, and caught it. This meant certain death, which seemed about to occur as the bird was dragged from the light into darkness, where it inexplicably found itself free. Go figure. That bird and its descendants will be telling this story in testimony meetings forever.
Life is weird. For birds, apparently, as well as the rest of us.