I’ve kind of been quietly making an etching alphabet of songbirds. The first idea was to make them pretty, pretty, pretty, and then I thought about the nature of Nature–it’s not all pretty–and then the hideous habitat destruction we’ve inflicted on songbirds and every other creature the landscape attempts to sustain, and the pictures have become a bit tougher and more wild, and maybe more true. We’ll see.
“B”is for Baltimore Oriole.
All over the west and south sides of Chicago there are still live poultry shops. It only now occurs to me that I’ve never actually been in one. Americans are particularly squeamish this way– we never want to look the creature we’re about to slaughter in the eye. We’d rather see it fried with some biscuits and gravy on a plate, or in nugget form in a small styrofoam box; or even better, chopped up with a bunch of vegetables in some soup. We’re not much for the blood and the feathers and the screeching death that comes along with butchering poultry.
A number of people in the city have begun to keep chickens in their yards in Ukrainian Village they raise their own eggs and I have to admit it is kind of heartening to see a plump chicken or two walking the alleyways. You want to warn them that: feral cats, large rats, raccoons, and now coyotes also now walk these alleys, and would gladly feast on them; but then you notice these are some big-assed chickens and when you get right up close and look them in the eye? You see all of the madness in the world.These chickens are Chicago chickens and they just might be able to hold their own.
When kids are in high school, doodles usually adorn every surface of their textbooks; at least they did on mine. I loved scribbling on the back of my tablet, or in the margins of my history book, or just on looseleaf and in notebooks. Anything was better than listening to the teacher and taking notes on whatever useless drivel they were going on about. It could be anything: hot rods, planes, Rat Fink, giant dicks, monsters. . .especially birds, tits, monkey heads, and always band logos and comics. . .a character named “Bong-Man” and voice -balloons containing thoughtful utterances like, “Shimmy-shimmy beat my meat,” “Transistor Sister,” and “Maggot-Brain.”
I had a lot on my mind.
What I’ve most enjoyed about making my “Lunch Drawings” is just how much they remind me of those drawings I made trying to escape the mind-numbing dogshit they tried to teach me in school. With very few exceptions, my teachers talked like a roll of toilet paper; one bloodless, colorless factoid after the next, until I had annihilation fantasies about blowing up my high school.
I also had this problem of sometimes thinking something while not realizing I was also actually saying it until after.
One time one of the Christian brothers was babbling on about some treacle about one of the saints, whom I gave not a fuck about. There were some cool saints to hear about. . .Saint Heckta, a loony tune possessed of much feverish faith, who iced some idolators with a broad axe, just ran through the pagans like a crazy bitch, swinging and playing Whack-a-Mole with the unworthy. This guy only concentrated on the more acceptable self-loathing whackjobs with their hair shirts and self flagellation.
On and on in this monotone drone. Brother Leo was the prick’s name, and finally I just thought to myself, “Jesus…H…Christ…will you just, please, God, shut him the fuck up.”
I heard some titters of laughter before I realized that I had actually SAID it, and then it was off to the races. Brother Leo engaging in the not very saintly, nor even Christian, act of beating the holy snot out of me. Brother Leo was pissed. His face was as red as a baboon’s ass and he was spitting while he was yelling and swinging like a madman. And for some reason, I started laughing my ass off, which pissed him off even more. He screamed, “Oh, you think this is funny, Mr. Funny-man!!!” and that did it. I couldn’t control the laughter then. I was laughing so hard my nose was running and I was snorting and the only thing I could think to say was, “God, you’re a fucking idiot.” This only prolonged things and finally I got sent to the office where I started laughing again and got suspended.
They told me I couldn’t come to school for three days.
The history I was taught was a lie. The math, I can do with a calculator. The English lit was the boring shit only Catholic schools would teach.
I went to a high school with no windows. At least in grade school, I could look outside at the birds. This became my great escape, and when I drew them, it became even better.
Often the drawings wound up situated in the middle of the crazed and vulgar doodles that I made. I didn’t realize it was my subconscious telling me to broom the rest of this shit and just go somewhere and draw. Eventually I got it. Drawing birds and naked girls became my passport to what the nuns used to call, “Tony World.” I liked it there.
I could do whatever the fuck I wanted there. When I was drawing, nothing that the teachers, cops, or other pain-in-the-ass authority figures had to say meant dick. It was all a blur and I learned how to shut out the noise.
I didn’t know it then, but those drawings were a foundation. . .the rock on which I built my work.
I still hate authority. Hate bosses. Bullies. And still insist on doing precisely whatever the fuck I feel like doing. I still doodle all of the time; eventually it turns into drawings. I still get the same subversive charge out of it. I’m happy that it has allowed me to not have a boss or have to kiss anybody’s ass or answer to any of the swinging dicks. I’m happy that at the end of my pencil is another world and I get to go there, and if I want, stay there. . .with the birds. I got it made.
The common starling or European starling was introduced to North America a couple of centuries ago by enthusiasts of Shakespeare. That’s right, Shakespeare. I had to read that twice, myself. Evidently, the Bard was fond of the plucky bird’s gift for mimicry and a bunch of blue-bloods thought it would be jolly-good fun to have the little winged gangsters over here. The first thing the common starling did was muscle as many songbirds out of nesting spots as it could. It spread wildly, becoming one of the most successful species in the history of the continent. Particularly hard hit were bluebirds, who were pushed damn near across the Mississippi River, population wise. They are just beginning to come back now.
The common starling is a striking bird that gives off a metallic sheen of purples, reds, greens, bronzes, and bright yellows when the sun shines on its plumage. They are hearty and boisterous and given to spectacular flight when in large flocks that often result in “murmuration,” which often makes the sky itself appear to be changing shape. It is something to see thousands upon thousands of starlings moving as one shape-shifting organism.
At my feeder every morning the starlings are usually here first. Though they prefer berries and insets, the ywill suck down some seeds as well. They are improbably beautiful and tough little bastards. They are much like Irish brothers, in that they know the best way to win a fight, is to bring a crowd.
There was an event the other night at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, just north of the Zoo. It was in celebration of the publication of my friend Joel Greenberg’s fascinating natural history account of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, A FEATHERED RIVER ACROSS THE SKY. It is a remarkable book about the squandering and wholesale slaughter of a single species.
In 1840, there was a description of a single flock of passenger pigeons so huge and in such great volume, it took three days for this one flock to fly over. The estimate is something like three billion birds. So many that the sky was darkened; a phenomenon reported on many other migratory paths as well. It is almost unfathomable that these birds would ever NOT be in the world. A scant fifty years later, they were gone. The last one, “Martha,” died in captivity in a Cincinnati Zoo; having never flown or even been in the wild. It is almost impossible to believe that this hearty species, a bird that could swallow acorns whole, could be wiped out in such short order.
There were “pigeon shoots” where, for days on end, yahoos with birdshot would blow them out of the sky and lure them to blinds and blast them at will, with no bag limit. One could kill as many as one could carry. They were often thrown to their pigs as a cheap food source and served in restaurants as squab.
The only grace note the extinction of the passenger pigeon affords us, is that the idea of the conservation of endangered species came to the forefront. The idea that the bounty of species this country was so blessed with might NOT be endless.
Greenberg’s book is a detective story, cautionary tale, and natural history of a species we decimated perhaps because its outsized appetites were too much like our own. This book is every bit as vital as Rachel Carson’s, “SILENT SPRING.”
A couple of years ago, while my friend, the painter Jenny Scobel was in town, we ran across what we thought was a dead bird in the street. We stopped and Jenny went out to pick it up. It was a beautiful bird that looked to be some kind of woodpecker. While holding the bird, she jumped for a second as she realized the legs and wings were beginning to move, and then the eyes opened. Not only was the bird not dead, but the plucky little bastard wanted to fight. She wasn’t quite up to flying yet, as we’d put her on the ground and she just kind of hopped as though drunk. It seemed she was still in shock. After bringing her back to my studio, a consultation with a bird guide helped identify her as a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which actually is related to woodpeckers.
What amazed me is just how beautiful this bird was. The reds and yellows and black and white and ochres really knocked me out. I’d never held a songbird before, and had not ever realized how fragile and tough they are at the same time.
Our best guess is that she’d flown into a windshield and knocked herself out and she was by no means ready to re-enter the wild yet. She’d have been easy pickings for some cat (fucking cats) or coyote.
We found a bird rescue operation and within 30 minutes, a humorless woman with a bird bag walked through the door and gently placed the wounded bird in the bird-sack. She eyed us suspiciously, I assured her that the bird hadn’t bounced off of our windshield, and she gave me a suspect look and wordlessly left the studio. I guess all of her excess personality and compassion is reserved for her feathered friends.
This encounter made me serious start looking at birds again. I’ve been fascinated with them since childhood and I rigged some bird feeders in the back yard. Every morning is a miracle. Sometimes 30 different species of songbirds show up at my feeder–sparrows, juncos, blackbirds, finches of every kind and here and there, the odd warbler, as well as cardinals. I don’t know what it is about them that makes me so happy, gives me such peace and fills me with such wonder. Perhaps it is the idea that nature isn’t something a hundred miles away; that it surrounds us and makes city life more bearable and beautiful and wondrous–and it doesn’t cost you a thing.
Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”
For a woman who didn’t get out much, she knew her stuff. I’m betting she had a bird-feeder.