Columns » Bob Lancaster

They're a hoot



The hot topic among the Mississippi flyway birds coming south during the fall migration continues to be the rapture of several thousands of their brethren near Beebe last winter.

The surviving birds, at least the migrants that I talked to, tend to think the raptured birds were "called home" by the great bird god Quetzalcoatl. They don't disbelieve the official human report that the birds died of some "unexplained blunt-force trauma," but they think that's an obvious and negligible part of the story.

The trauma was from the birds hitting the ground after falling from a great height, the birds agree, but it was only their mortal shells that fell — the Bird-God had already harvested their immortal souls and borne them away to Bird Heaven, where the streets are paved with sunflower seeds and the upper ranks of demons in faraway Bird Hell are filled with puddies that used up their nine tats.

That's the bird slant on the Great Beebe Croak, but you have to take bird  forensics with several grains of Lot's wife. Birdbrain didn't come to mean what it does for nothing. Word-of-beak communication is about the only kind they have over long distances, and that combines badly with their tendency to gossip. Gossips always embroider and festoon their news reports, and elide the subtleties, so that what started out as a mere bobolink spiel evolves at last into a full-blown roadrunner windy, full of such preposterous notions as that creatures other than human beings might have an afterlife.

In the Beebe aftermath, bird yarn-spinners outright stole the idea of a human Rapture and applied it to themselves. Deer have leapt to the same conclusion during hunting seasons with a heavy harvest, and possums since the heyday of the flivver have alleged that roadkill represents a rapture of sorts for their icky species.

But it's all hooey.

Only humans have a Rapture. Other species can do special effects, but that's only Pixar legerdemain, not the real deal. Birds do deserve some credit for not being sanctimonious in their bird-rapture delusions, and for not going around squawking or gabbling predicted dates and times. There's no bird Harold Camping, or even a bird Tim LeHaye — and that speaks well for them.

There's no bird Geraldo, either. They have no media except snatches of our blogs that they intercept unwittingly as they quietly wing down their predetermined longitudinal flypaths. They have to depend for punditry on the owls, appointed to put a reasonable spin on such prodigies as the Beebe Rapture and to enter authoritative interpretations of such events into the Avian Cosmology, an ancient stash of bird lore and bird fancy.  

These bird annals go back much farther than our own, but owls don't know how to write, or how to compile written records, so they have to keep it all in their heads and disclose it only in hoots that all sound like the same hoot. There are only so many gigs of bird saga that you can get into a hoot. Multi-tasking is required of the owls too — if while they're deep into archiving, for instance, they catch a glimpse of an incautious field mouse they have to beg pardon and go talon the rascal and take it home to stuff piecemeal into owlet maws.

So owl wisdom is spotty, with gaps and lapses, sluggish with unpersuasive myth — and their knowledgeability is nothing to hoot home about either. They think bats are birds, for example. They think airplanes are birds. They think helicopters are just big dragonflies. They don't know what to make of a kite. They can't decipher roc or auk or any other of the ancient bird languages. You can hypnotize them with metronomes and make fools of them with post-hypnotic suggestions. You can sell them schlock. Thousands of them are co-owners of the Brooklyn Bridge.

They're better in matters of the spirit, but even there a fledgling aspirant to the ecclesiastical would be better served perching attentively in the rafters at a middling Vacation Bible School. There's not a single owl that knows, or would guess, that the world is only 6,000 years old. Birds are utterly unaware of the great r.o.i.'s that derive from making burnt offerings. Neither raven nor dove has ever traced its ancestry to the ark. Birds have no Decalogue so they can only guess when they've sinned, and no blessed assurance is forthcoming for repenting guessed-at trespasses.

When churlish jays or wiseacre magpies turn to the owls for priestly or rabbinic guidance, the owls can only shrug. They may add a hoot to the shrug. Birds see Sunnis fighting Shi'ites, Catholics and Protestants blowing each other up, Tutsis braining Wootsies and vice versa, evangelicals warring with the sane, etc. — and it all goes right over their heads.

They lack the moral and physical courage to jump into the big middle of frays both great and small. We humans do however have the requisite grit, the dander, and our Maker rewards us with such gifts as the real-McCoy Rapture and dominion over the lesser, fainter-hearted, minding-their-own-business beasts, including the yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

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