At the end of the final exam in my Ornithology class, I ask the students, “If you could come back as a bird, which species would you choose and why?” No grades for this question… The diversity of answers is always interesting. This question can be taken in a number of ways: which bird most represents something about who you are, which bird most represents something about who you’d like to be, or which bird offers something to you now that you find compelling, amusing, or interesting?
I’ll list summaries of student answers below, then offer my own thoughts.
Wood thrush – for Thoreau
Blue-footed Boobies — because they are called blue-footed boobies; I’d choose the mate with the silliest foot-waving dance.
Arctic tern – they migrate between hemispheres; it is always summer for them.
Brown pelican – great life on the ocean
Owl – great songs; they are so quiet; come out in the evening, my favorite time of day.
Turkey vulture – they eat well and I could terrorize people with my unholy hissing sound.
A crane – to migrate and see the world; protected from hunters; I’d be tall and have few predators.
Peregrine falcon – amazing speed, control, and acute senses.
Whatever that bird was on the Life of Birds video that actually enjoyed sex.
Osprey – aerial and aquatic superiority, and a vision of the future…
Cedar waxwing – roll deep with a huge posse and get drunk off of berries while looking like a superhero/bandit.
Wood thrush – they make the most beautiful sound, magical, mysterious.
American crow – they do pretty well as a species (apart from West Nile virus); I like the idea of a family unit; fly high and fast.
Barred owl – I like owls, this species is the best looking. I’m not feisty enough to be a screech owl and I don’t have enough Rowan Williams in me to be a Great Horned Owl…
Common loon – I really like the song
Lyre bird – the ultimate song learner. Amazing feathers.
Spotted owl – neatest looking birds (soft and fluffy while also being murderous and cunning); I could stand in the way of deforestation in the NW, a beautiful place; no long migrations; people would be happy to see me; rad call.
Cedar waxwing – love their song and their appearance, especially the bar stripe through the eyes.
It heartens me to see how many of these answers refer to sound. Developing acoustic awareness is a big part of this class.
Here are my responses. I write the exam and the blog, so I get to bend the rules and choose three different species. A divided afterlife? Why not? I picked these three for the physical experience of the world that they would offer my body-jumping soul.
Wandering albatross – the purest experience of air possible, winging for hours without a flap of the wings, caught in the strength of the endless south polar winds; alone for months with ocean, salt, wind, and a gray horizon that never resolves into land. I can feel the streaming cold air in my nostrils already. A meditation.
Mousebird – a life tumbling in a flutter of sociable activity, my flockmates always close; we gorge on fruits and flower buds, then recline in the sun to let its warming rays toast our bellies, chattering all the while. Conviviality.
Winter wren – an unassuming bird, at home in the undergrowth, half bird half mammal. My song slices open the forest air and the moon pours out, splintered into a million pieces. My heart breaks at the beauty of the flowing air in my throat. An exaltation.
Of course, beyond these dreams, the task for today is to want to be who we are. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”