Birds Nobody Loves: A Book of Vultures & Grackles
This evening was our local Audubon chapter’s annual spring banquet, featuring a presentation called “Confessions of a Reluctant Birder” by naturalist-blogger Jennifer Scott Schlick, so how better to prepare myself this morning than by reading another blogger-friend’s graceful and entertaining new book of poems about grackles and vultures? James Brush is from Austin, Texas, where grackles are almost as despised as the Texas state legislature, though I think they are in session at least twice as often. Years ago, when my brother Mark was getting his M.A. from the University of Texas, I took the bus down to visit him a couple of times and was deeply impressed by the size of the grackle flocks and the variety of interesting sounds the birds could produce. Watching them come into roost along the riverbank at dusk was an impressive sight, rivaling as a spectacle the emergence of the Mexican free-tailed bats from underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge on the other side of the river. Oddly, though, few of the people gathered to wait for the bats did more than glance in the grackles’ direction. Why not?
James Brush’s poems offer a few clues. A humorous haibun, “The Grackle Tree,” begins: “After a few days under the grackle tree, the blue sedan began to develop a white pox, which spread with each passing night.” People fire shotgun blanks into the tree with little effect, and
After a month, no one remembered what color the car had been, and no one ever discussed its owners or what became of them.
boughs shake and chatter
at the cars
Brush uses hyperbole to good effect. In one poem he imagines fundamentalists from Kansas coming down to Austin to demonstrate with signs that read “God hates grackles.” In another, “Quiscalus Mexicanus,” the Mexican great-tailed grackles come under fire on right-wing talk radio:
Grackles are socialists. They weren’t born in the U.S. Grackles do what Hitler did. Shouldn’t even call ’em passerines; they’re not even birds. Sub-birds at best.
Another poem describes the reactions of various people when Brush tells them his greyhound Joey ate a grackle: “Yuck, but your dog will be fine,” says animal emergency. “Ewww,” says another veterinarian. And a friend relishes the dog’s new appetite: “Thank goodness. Grackles are awful.” For his part, the author simply notes how much more attentive Joey has become to his daily filling of the fird feeders. Dog and master share a new tie, bound by their appreciation for this “bird nobody loves.”
Grackle poems alternate with poems about turkey vultures and black vultures — both species that we have here in central Pennsylvania, as well. I don’t know that these birds are as disregarded by serious birders as Brush says they are in Texas, perhaps because we’re on the Eastern Flyway and people at the spring and autumn hawk watches tally migrating vultures with as much enthusiasm as anything else. Also, there’s nothing more elegant in flight than a turkey vulture, its wings curved up in a very shallow V, rocking back and forth in the wind or circling on thermals but rarely flapping. Brush captures some of this grace in his micropoem sequence, “A Committee of Vultures”:
across a brown field
in a cloudless sky
a vulture circles the prairie
seeking an ending
Of course, vultures can be somewhat repulsive, too: “We shit on our own feet,” begins “Creed for Cathartes Aura.” And black vultures clustered around a corpse seem to be plotting how to hone their predatory skills.
Straightening their ties, they discuss
elaborate plans to go public. Someday,
they claim, they will become hawks or eagles.
Since some of the poems are autobiographical, I couldn’t help wondering whether Brush might’ve put a bit of himself in “Lines Discovered in an Aging Ornithologist’s Field Journal”:
When the end comes, don’t
plant me in the ground, trapped
in just one piece of earth.
Why not leave me by
the highway for the vultures
and maybe for the crows
who will take my unseeing eyes.
Then, at last, I could soar,
finally fly on dusky wings
buried in the sky.
This is a fun book, and light-weight enough to slip easily in a knapsack with the field guides.