I have a couple of friends who live in an Ontario swamp — by choice, surrounded by nature at its most intense, at least at this latitude. It is cool and comfortable in there during the summer. No mosquito problem, for instance: The frogs, fish, and birds that flourish over, around, and under their house (built as a bridge between two small islands) take care of them. The toughest time of the year is when the bullfrogs are mating, on account of their stentorian roars. But then the herons start taking care of them.
The lady of that house is much attached to hummingbirds. She hangs out cylinders for them and has otherwise helped them to become numerous. Indeed, she has several-dozen favored animal species, of water, land, and air, including a pair of dogs both larger than she is. But her relationship with the hummingbirds is special, to the point where I’ve been inclined — wrongly, as it turns out — to doubt the stories she has told about them. Her husband is a reformed city boy, and a visit to their Swamp House is like a passage into the very book of nature, with live exhibits wherever one turns, springing from the pages.
A paradise on earth — and, as one might expect, an instructive paradise. For by watching wild animals closely, with patience and attention, one may be transported to the frontiers of human knowledge.
Through the heat of this summer, though trapped by work in the city, I have been somewhat obsessed with birds. This is from discovering the works of the late Alexander F. Skutch, a most remarkable ornithologist. He lived for decades in a remote valley in Costa Rica, a kind of Swamp House writ large, and through several-dozen books and hundreds of papers communicated to the wide world unprecedented information about the life histories of the birds that surrounded him. He was scientist and scholar, and by collating his findings with literature from all over place and time, he was able to write incomparably on the general issues.
I will give one passing example from the book, A Naturalist Amid Tropical Splendour (1987), to hint at the great wealth. Skutch gives notes on the choral singing of a tropical species of hummingbird, the scaly-breasted Phaeochroa cuvierii. As he makes clear, their songs are learned, not innate, and harmonious even though the birds themselves are scrappy, competitive little individualists in the field. Each scaly-breast contributes to the melodic choral line, with repeating phrases in a complicated pattern, yet hung upon a theme. At some point they may go silent, but the sharp field observer notes their throats are still vibrating. They are still singing, but above the range of human ears.
Then they all break. They flex their wings and fan out their tails, stretching between numbers.
Then one hummingbird suggests a new theme — let us say, “twe-twe-twe trilllll chup chup,” seemingly based on the mating call of the local Tody-Flycatcher — and they start up again. Inserting perhaps that popular refrain: “chwee, see-see-ah chwee, see-see-ah chip-chip-chip-chip-chip” — wherein the “chwee” is sounded as a low, sustained, very unhummingbirdlike note, audible to humans at 200 feet.
In the dry season, when food is hard to find, and death is all about, the small birds seldom sing. But when the showers come in April, the singing returns, increasing as the flowers bloom, and with that, their supply of nectar.
There are solos and duets. There are massed choruses, and part choruses, male and female. The males, for instance, sing chorally for the females while they are building their nests. A repertoire is developed within the flock, and in passing to a new flock, we enter new musical traditions.
Consider the metabolism of a hummingbird. It beggars belief: a heart that can race to more than 1,000 beats per second while in flight, yet slow to 50 in arid semi-hibernation. Wings that in some species can complete up to 100 twirling strokes in a second. The ability to hover, or fly backwards — on aerodynamic principles different from those exploited by insects of similar size. On paper, always within a few hours of starvation. Yet some, banded but indifferent to the human calculations, have been known to overfly 500 miles of open water.
And they are one tiny part of a larger birdworld that is full of examples not only of “nature red in tooth and claw,” but of the most exquisite and purposeful cooperation, within and between species.
Some birds bring food to each other’s nests and have been shown to supply even building materials, one species for another. Many feed not only their young but their old, injured, deformed, and ill, in defiance of all Darwinian logic. They spread warnings of danger, also across species; they sacrifice their lives in defense of one another. In zoos, detached from others of their own kind, they form the most curious companionships, not only with other birds, but with other animals. They also do this in the wild.
In Skutch alone, my reader will discover worlds within worlds, all conscientiously sourced, and cautiously understated. His documentations of courage among animals, of parental devotion in many different forms, of very particular friendships and attachments, of cooperation and helpfulness, of joy in being and vitality in play, of seeming appreciation for beauty, of curiosity beyond practical need, and of what Skutch affirms as a kind of integrity by which each animal will sooner surrender its life than be untrue to its nature — all these facts point to a world that cannot be reduced to “survival of the fittest.”
The challenge for the Catholic lies beyond the bird as symbol. It is to explore this science, and to think through the ontology of the human the more deeply in light of the light within the very mechanisms of nature.