Imaginings of avian reincarnation

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.

Student answers:

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.”

10 thoughts on “Imaginings of avian reincarnation

  1. batesvillian

    Okay, I’ll play:

    Ruby-throated hummingbird — I’m the original snowbird. Summers in Canada, winters in Costa Rica. What’s not to like? Plus I have the middle and eastern half of North America pretty much to myself. And get this: people think I’m so cute, they actually feed me, though in my mind I’m the featherweight champion of the world. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. That’s right, you heard me, stay away from my feeder, buddy, Gotta fly now.

  2. Uncomely and Broken

    What a wonderful exam question! For me, it would be HIrundo Rustica, whom I first came to know in person in the South. I remember one time in Summer School teaching the myth of Procne and Philomela. It was a pretty morning, and the students were sitting on the steps of Carnegie for shade. None of us were aware that there was swallow’s nest plastered above the arch. As class went on, the mother flew back and forth with food for her chirping babies, dive-bombing us now and then as she saw fit. People have long been charmed by their grace. The Spring fresco at Thera dates to 1500 BC, and features a pair of swallow in flight:

      1. Uncomely and Broken

        This reminds me– I want to ask you, once the dust settles (which for you may be quite a while) some questions about Linnaean nomenclature. In fact, I think I simply will have to take your Ornithology class.

  3. Pingback: O Swallow, Swallow | uncomelyandbroken

  4. Mary Beth

    “But where love thrives, there pain is always found; | Angels alone escape this weary round | They love without that savage agony | Which is reserved for vexed humanity.”

    A reflection of each other => transcendent totality of existence: Now rendered in a beautiful picture-book for adults—

    For your seemingly v.clever(!) protégées- “It is not enough to memorize or recite or intellectually comprehend [song; misc. species’ traits]: ‘…Don’t prattle and sit | On your haunches till into stiffening death you stray.’ Books…won’t get you there. They are maps, but you must actually make the journey [e.g., imaginings of rebirth?] to truly understand.”

    “[U]nless the feather’s image is felt and seen | None knows the heart’s obscure, shifting states | That replace the fat of inaction with decision’s lean.”

    Acknowledgment of truth => Subsistence. Off to China we go!

    P.S. This highly-entertaining ramble would only be improved by single imbed-hyperlink to, “whatever that bird is that actually enjoys sex.”

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Escape from vexation of any kind, let alone the vexatious cycle of birth and rebirth via transformation into angeldom is not something that I have much skill at. I would, however, offer extra credit on the final exam to any student who could take us all there.

      Thank you for the link and quotes from The Conference of Birds. Wow. A different kind of avian imagining. And, yes, I agree that it is not enough to memorize (the students here in finals week might claim that it sure helps, though). As for delaying the quest, when a direction is known: no.

      I have no idea where the student comment about bird sex comes from (did he watch the same video? I hope so…I’m sure there are some sketchy videos out there with “bird” and “sex” in the taglines). Presumably any bird species that did *not* enjoy sex (or feel whatever motivational force that counts as “enjoyment” in bird brains) would be swiftly confined to the Darwinian dustbin. Along these lines, for a very disturbing account of what some ornithologists spend their lives doing, see this. OMFG is the only possible response to the penultimate sentence, I think.

      Cycling back, as it were, to reincarnation then escape, Rumi echoes the Conference of Birds (shamelessly taken off Wikipedia for this blog reply – I’m no Rumi expert):

      I died as a mineral and became a plant,
      I died as plant and rose to animal,
      I died as animal and I was Man.
      Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
      Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
      With angels bless’d; but even from angelhood
      I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
      When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
      I shall become what no mind e’er conceived.
      Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence
      Proclaims in organ tones,
      To Him we shall return.

      Hmm. A hard sell, I think. Transformation from one physical form to another, then to angel – very attractive. Then enter into non-existence? Not yet, please.


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