Published at Oregon Humanities
She was nose down in dense clover, tail feathers up and wings askew like an ill-fated paper airplane. No movement, and seemingly no way to right her injured self from the expanses of oxalis that had overtaken my late-summer garden. Whenever a bird strikes my front window, my eyes dart in that direction; if I don’t see the bird rebound and fly away, I scan the bed below the window for a sign. After eleven years in this house, I’ve lost count of how many injured birds I’ve found dead, or near enough.
My habit is to grab a hand towel before going outside so the creature might rest and revive in softness. When I lifted this particular bird into the towel, straightening her wings and resting her on her side, I saw the lift and fall of her chest with steady breath. Her eyes were dull, but she blinked on occasion. Mostly she kept her eyes closed. For a few minutes, I stood still as the St. Francis statue beside us in the garden. I walked to a nearby Adirondack chair and sat, cradling her in my hand and stroking her chest for several more minutes as her eyes steadily opened. She was stunning: smaller than a child’s fist, a shiny dapple of brown and black feathers, her pebble-black eyes shimmering with life. After a time, she stood, legs steady despite their slightness, frail as pine needles. She appeared unafraid. Maybe it was the blow to the head. Upright on my hand, she was free to fly, but seemed worn out, slightly stricken. I walked her to a thick branch of hinoki cypress in my garden. Dense, lateral needles form wide platforms within this tree, offering safety from cats and dogs. She was standing steadily now, so I rested the back of my hand on a high branch of the hinoki and waited.
She wouldn’t budge. I transferred her claws to the bare fingers of my other hand, placing them against the branch, but she wouldn’t step off. My inner guidance said, Take her in, keep her safe while she strengthens, yet I knew that if one of her wings was permanently injured, she would not survive in the wild. By Oregon law, I had twenty-four hours to return the creature to the wild or take her to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center. This would require a one-and-a-half-hour drive and a none-too-cozy intake at the rehab center. If the center determined the bird couldn’t be rehabilitated, she would be euthanized. Turning from the hinoki, I went inside, protecting the bird with the tent of my hands.
Covering her loosely in the hand towel, careful to keep her out of sight of my cats, I retrieved a plush-lined pet carrier and took it to the kitchen table, then nestled her inside. I filled a mayonnaise lid with water and sat it the carrier, added a few red huckleberries from the bush outside my back door, and brought the carrier to my bed. Two feet apart, in sight of one another, she and I slept through the night.
The next morning, the bird bounced around the carrier looking from side to side. I tried again to release her to the hinoki, and again she wouldn’t budge, clinging to my finger as before. So I headed to town to buy a cage, stopping to pick a few thimbleberries. As soon as I placed them in her carrier, she snatched up a berry. Returning from town, I hung the cage over my old clawfoot bathtub, sixteen inches from a window that opened onto woods, where she could hear the trilling and chirping of many birds through the open window. Research revealed she was a Swainson’s thrush.
I called the thrush Nene. She immediately let me into her space and experience. Once, I had encountered this closeness with a chipmunk, but never a wild bird or other wild creature. With Nene, there was none of the skittishness and distance one usually experiences with an injured bird. She let me stroke her and nestle her beautiful body into my chest. She turned to me when I spoke to her and easily wrapped her splinter claws around my finger. It felt like a privilege, somehow singular and remarkable. I have experienced connections with several domesticated animals and currently have three pets, but domesticated breeds have adapted and developed for so long in the context of human companionship that they now “let us in” quite naturally. The experience of being let in by non-domesticated animals seems unique to those working in rehabilitation or in close study or training. Not to the rest of us.
Nene let me experience up close something I have held mostly theoretically. With her, I felt in my gut that we animals—non-human and human—are all of the same kind. Here she was, this tiny wild bird, and I this enormous, unfamiliar human, yet it seemed, on a certain level of the unseen, that there was no difference. I know this view challenges the long-held Western orthodoxy that says we humans are altogether different because we have self-reflective consciousness. But this seems to be a difference of degree, not of kind. How can we know what degree of self-reflective awareness an advanced primate, or a dolphin or elephant, does or does not have? Perhaps their self-reflective consciousness is merely incipient, as ours was once. Maybe some non-human creatures even “know what they know” more than we think they do.
As a theologian, I want to challenge theological concepts placing humans on an entirely different plane than animals—concepts that say humans are a reflection of the Divine (however one defines it) in a wholly unique way, having the nature of the Divine in ways animals do not. These concepts and the “dominion” they have historically been said to grant us are suspect. They have led to our looting the created world as if it was our personal ATM instead of a delicately balanced ecology of reciprocity for the good of all species. Many religious and spiritual people the world over accelerate this looting despite the dire warnings of climate scientists and the rapid extinction of species in the modern era. Many people unaffiliated with religion or spiritual traditions are likewise shaped by long-held ideas elevating humans over other animals and likewise loot carelessly, greedy for more than our species’ share of resources.
If our level of self-reflective consciousness is different from animals only by degree and not by kind, we should find ourselves in a position of greater responsibility and service, not of inherent preeminence. A by-degree approach asks much more of us than we have been willing to give, in the way more is asked of a parent or an elder than of the child in their care. We have merely reached the heights of our abilities and responsibilities more quickly than have other animals. We are merely at a different stage of development and vocation. As the species at the top of the food chain, we are also the species most dispensable.
By the end of her first full day with me, Nene was splashing in a bowl of water, semi-flying from the bottom of her cage to her perch and stretching out her wings. I could not tell if she was eating. Whenever I entered the bathroom, she would hop toward me. Twice that day, we visited the hinoki, and she held fast to my finger, unprepared for freedom. It concerned me that she hadn’t used her voice, despite the birdsong coming through the window. By the end of that second evening, however, she was animated, seemingly eager to attempt real flight.
The next morning, I put her to the test. I opened the large door on the front of the cage and let her take off around the bathroom. She flew to a wrought-iron flourish at the top of an antique mirror six feet away from the cage, then to the window sill. I had no idea if her wings were strong enough to carry her on the fall southern migration with her kin. Yet she was strong enough to fly around the woods, it seemed, to resume her life among them. The rest was not for me to know.
It was early in the day, and the din of birdsong was boisterous outside the bathroom window. Taking her onto my finger, I covered Nene loosely with a towel to walk her outside and up into the dense northwest coastal woods where I reside. Alongside the trail was an old birdhouse with a craggy driftwood perch. I pried her claws from my finger, forcing her to step onto it. As she rested on the perch, I stroked her chest and whispered. I looked into her eyes and she into mine, and we remained that way for two long minutes. What was happening in those moments, I don’t exactly know. But I wonder if the universal being in me, which I would associate with the Divine, was connecting with the universal being in her—the common experience of being and love bridging any distance between us. Eventually she turned her gaze from me to the birdsong higher up in the forest. Then, she flew from the birdhouse to the moss-encrusted branch of a vine maple about three feet away, on the other side of the path. Though her flight was more specious than strong, she could clearly make her way around the place. From that one branch, she flew to another.
As I watched her, my feelings were mixed. Her meager flight among the branches was joyous and right, and surely she needed to scout her own food. But there were no guarantees she would make it. No guarantees—and I worried. Don’t we all want guarantees? She had flown again, to another vine maple branch, this time about five feet away from me, where she stood and faced up into the woods.
At that point, I heard—for the first time—her voice. She began to chirp distinctively. Though I am familiar with the baroque, trilling call of the Swainson’s thrush, I was not familiar with their more mundane chirping. As she started to chirp, I noticed the sound was identical to calls all around us in the surrounding woods. The woods were full of Swainson’s thrushes, and she was making conversation, rejoining her kin. I watched as her thorn of a beak opened and closed, speaking her own language, until finally she flew to a branch out of my sight, lost in the undefined chaos of twigs, leaves, and open air, lost to uncertainty and possibility. Yet truly, also, found.