Prized and Feral

by Ethan Seavey

My grandmother’s bird of choice is the rooster. She was raised in rural Kentucky and now lives in rural Wisconsin. She collects all sorts of roosters (and, by extension, some hens): wall art, printed dish towels, ceramic statues as small as a pinky and as large as a lamp, coin bowls and blankets and something nostalgic in each one.

If you don’t mind stepping briefly into her condo, we can see what it’s like. Eyes everywhere. Thoughtless, energetic eyes. Suspicion and preparedness. A rooster’s eye is life because it is anxiously awake, unsure why, but it is safe because it is always aware of sources of suspicion; suspicion, of course, comes from an abundance of anxiety. So those eyes don’t think much about what they’re watching. I’m sure you’ll find it hard to find hundreds of rooster eyes in your peripheral vision, but you’ll get used to it. If you feel overwhelmed, you can look outside her large windows, you can see the small and glassy lake with sailboats gliding over its surface like razors through taut fabric.

My mother’s bird of choice is the crow. She unconsciously developed an uncanny connection with them. It started during our group quarantine, after the onset of the pandemic. We spent April through May isolated in our ski cabin. We had no friends there so we could not be tempted to socialize. We could social distance easily, with the majority of the houses nearby sitting empty, their owners waiting for the ski resort to reopen.

My mother enlisted the best protection. We had crows in the area and they would often eat the seeds at the edge of our driveway. They were not too many in number and not too plump, so my mother fed them some birdseed we had left over from feeding the chipmunks.

This quickly escalated into an alliance between my mother and the crows. Within weeks she’s feeding them chicken scraps daily, and fretting over the quasi-cannibalistic sentiment of it. Every time my mom steps onto the porch, their eyes follow her. If you peek at the large patches of blue sky stacked on each of the sparse branches of the lodgepole pines, you’ll see their silhouettes. They watch her closely, and if she’s carrying food, they bark at one another—bark is not quite the right word but it is the most accurate—until my mother slides the door closed, and then they flock down to our wooden porch.

Before Colorado I’d never lived somewhere where the animals felt so immediate. When the sun goes down you turn back and go home. You think of: softly stalking mountain lions, fumbling and ferocious black bears, a startled moose breaking your ribs with its antlers. And into this ecosystem enters a dog. Nutmeg, a tiny animal whose mission is to anxiously fret over everyone in her “herd” at the time. Her mother was a Bernese mountain dog, but her father was a small poodle and the result is an animal too small for her capacity for anxiety. She can’t stop us from leaving the group, or defend us from outsiders, but she worries plenty about both of those things. She barks at the crows because she is jealous that they are getting chicken and she is eating kibble.

One day, on a walk with my brother, I witnessed a group of crows fighting a large bird in the sky, just hundreds of feet from our house. A few weeks later, my mother was walking with Nutmeg when she realized a hawk had been following them, and was keeping a close eye on the small pup. She held the leash close and sped up. The hawk came closer, flew lower. Then: the crows came to the rescue. It’s an amazing sight to see, watching these birds take on larger predators. Not only because they are so much weaker than the beast they manage to scare off, but because you finally see the vastness of the flock. Until now it might have been a flock of five, but now you see them all at once, the ones which have been hiding in trees or pulling scraps from other houses. The attack starts quickly, very quickly, after the large bird enters their territory. Soon, they’re ripping the larger bird apart, using beaks made to tear up stale flesh to draw blood.

A little while ago, our family bought a new house a mile or so up the same mountain. My mother was worried about losing her flock, but of course, she’s gathered a new one, possibly the exact same as from the old house, so loyal in their protection. Together we’ve seen them chase a fox out of the yard. We watched a mother feed her son on our porch. Now she feeds them the kibble that Nutmeg used to eat when she was younger, and she barks at them because they’re eating her kibble.

Crow’s eyes are tolerant and wary. Often, you don’t see them, but they see you. They’re dark and they hoard light like food. If you’ll follow me onto the porch, I’ll show them to you. You might have the same sense of feeling seen that you did at my grandma’s condo, but you won’t know why; you’ll only see one or two of them. If you’re lucky, you’ll see an eagle move in on their territory and watch the dozens of crows fly out from all around you. If you’re smart, you’ll try to sway them to protect you, too.

My bird of choice is the pigeon. It is both prized and feral, like the rooster, like the crow. Its eyes are afraid, because they are some terrible combination of the crow’s knowledge and the rooster’s abundant fear. Its eyes don’t watch you, but your feet. Rarely loud, rarely bold, they sit in parks and perch in bushes. They’re city birds, but of course no bird evolved to be city birds, it’s just that the pigeon fit so naturally into the niche that it cannot be removed. Because it is life it is afraid. Because it must it remembers the foot that kicked it yesterday as well as the old man who fed them last week. Because it is here it is worth giving a scrap of bread, no?