We have been betrayed. Two generations of propagandists have worked overtime to convince us that while the great beasts of the jungle and even the lowly rabbit in Australia are man's enemies, the birds are our "feathered friends." They are nothing of the sort. They are disturbers of the peace and desecrators-of shrines, carriers of disease and competitors for food. Now they have become killers, by flocking around airports and causing fatal accidents. So alongside the comic aspects of our self-deception about birds we now have the tragic.
When I was a boy, man's relations with birds were relatively few and simple. Both my grandmothers kept canaries. Each was a trim, well-groomed little songster in a yellow coat, and he knew his place—in a cage. Each had been well trained, allegedly in the Harz Mountains, to sing for his supper. He did that about 11 months in the year and we gave him the other month off to renew his feathers. (Apparently canaries, like coloraturas, cannot hit their high notes while they are changing.)
There were some other things around that grew feathers, but we didn't really think of them as birds. The barnyard chickens laid eggs irregularly, but often enough for Mother to build a fine yellow cake. There were ducks, which were, supposed to. lay eggs, as well as supply meat. Most of the time they either laid no eggs or hid them off in the rushes somewhere, so their only useful purpose was to wind up Stuffed with rice; chestnuts and seasonings. We simply didn't think of these things as birds.
On our rare visits to the city we saw a few pigeons in the parks, around statues of Columbus and La Salle. There weren't too many, of them. The other feathered creatures in the city were recent immigrants with ho rights in our America: starlings (then just coming in from the East) and English sparrows. There were plenty of sparrows because there were still horses, and the sparrows used to go around picking up after the horses. The starlings were so few that nobody paid them any attention.
The only other birds that meant anything to us were honest-to-goodness game birds. We had upland game birds like partridge, and later the state game commission introduced ring-necked pheasants. This was a good thing because our bobwhite quail had begun to get scarce. We also had waterfowl: plenty of greenhead mallards and a few blacks, blue-winged teal and sprig, and on the bigger lakes there were broadbill and cannies. When the big honkers came down, we always got a couple for Mother for Thanks giving.
As far as we were concerned, that was the bird world...Swallows and robins and gulls and herons were just part of the landscape. Nothing to get excited about, and nobody that we knew ever did get excited about them. All that first-robin nonsense in the spring was strictly from newspapermen's hunger.
It's different now. Every city big enough to have a parking problem has a society for the preservation and propagation of rare, threatened and vanishing birds. In exurbia you don't rate unless you have your backyard decorated with elaborate feeders to dispense expensive sunflower seed, and suet cakes (ugh!) dangling from the trees.
If you admit that you like to take to the hills in mid-October and shoot yourself a grouse, you are shunned on the 8:44 as though you had leprosy, and it's the same if you go duck hunting. Do you want to drain a marsh or fill a swamp or cut down a tangle of catbrier and poison ivy on your property? Watch out. A flock of elderly females, with all the charm of the vultures they are lobbying for, will swoop in to deny your right to improve your own place.
No matter where you go, you can't get away from the bird lovers and their opposition to practically anything that civilized man wants to do for his own comfort, or even that he needs to do to insure his own survival.
If you live in the city you have to fight off the pigeons, which have had a population explosion greater than any in Asia. They think that houses with decorative stonework and old-fashioned windows that open and wide sills were built for them. They will splatter the place with unsightly, evil-smelling fertilizer. They will try to nest in a cranny just outside your bedroom window, and wake you up at dawn with a combination of booming and moaning noises that bird lovers mistakenly call cooing. Feathers and bits of their calling cards will drift into your window.