Sometimes I long to be a tern. Sure, I’d have to eat raw fish, but that would be a small price to pay considering I’d have the manoeuvrability of an F-16 and the life-long free spirit of a teenager. Besides, if you know me, you know how I feel about sushi.
A person’s intention when calling someone a bird-brain isn’t usually to compliment them on their intellectual ability, or their particularly quick thinking. I suppose the insult is founded on the simple observation that birds happen to have very small brains, and therefore must not be endowed with a high IQ. In fact, if your little sister or brother knew about a bird’s ability to recognize, decipher and communicate, they just might say: “thanks”, when you call them a bird-brain.
I always thought of birds as somewhat strange. They certainly are masters of attracting attention. Whether it is a swallow’s fly-by inches from an unsuspecting wanderer who found himself too close to a nest or the proud strut of a wild-turkey gobbler, bird behaviour seems to draw plenty of attention and curiosity. There are plenty of people who spend great amounts of time and money observing birds, and now, I think I’m beginning to understand that it isn’t only because of their beautiful plumage.
When I was in University, I had the pleasure of taking a class with a certain Dr. David Bird, of McGill. He is foremost a great guy, a passionate nature lover and, believe it or not, an ornithologist (look it up if you don’t believe me). His passion for the subject changed my perception of birds. He allowed me to realize that bird behaviour differs from that of a lot of other familia of animals. For example, he tought me that birds of prey, falcons specifically, are specially trained to seek and kill any smaller birds on airport runways. I had no idea the ancient art of falconery had this modern application. He also told us countless stories of banded birds returning to the exact location where they lay their nests year after year. Indeed, birds are worth a second look.
Apparently, a bird and his keeper can develop a relationship comparable to that of a horse and his master. Dr Bird invited one of his friends who raises falcons (incidentally falconry is legal in every province with the exception of Quebec) into our classroom for an advanced version of show-and-tell, if you will. I was amazed and quite taken aback by the grace and poise of this animal. It commanded immediate respect. However, what I retained long after this presentation was the handler’s response to a fellow student’s question. She asked the man to describe his relationship with the animal; whether it was purely utilitarian or if emotions were involved. The handler then looked up outside the window for a brief second and said “think of it as a flying dog, who probably wishes you had wings so you too could be up there flying alongside him”. Now I wanted my own flying dog.
I put this little encounter with the falcon and his friend away in the memory bank and did what I do best; I went fishing.
Solitude is something we as fishermen sometimes struggle with. It can be nice to be alone in the boat, with only thoughts to keep you entertained. Yet sometimes you feel the urge to share the countless events of a day’s fishing with another soul. During almost every fishing outing, something unusual happens; something that is out of the ordinary. It could be a sudden storm you had to hide from, the discovery of a new shoal or small island, engine problems, an amazing sunset, the big one that got away, dropping your new sunglasses in the water, or anything, really. Here is one of those moments.
I was on a roll, the perch were hitting hard and the action was fast and furious. The bites came as soon as my sinker hit the bottom. The unlucky minnows that filled my bucket were quicly noticed by a playful tern. At first he circled overhead, scanning, debating and planning his attack. He wanted a minnow. After a few minutes, as he approached closer and closer he came down and snatched one of my minnows from the surface. The audacity and determination of this little vertebrate wowed me. Following his successful first attempt he repeatedly came flying down in a scooping motion not 3 feet away from me catching discarded minnows out of thin air. It was a uniquely intimate feeling to be hand feeding a tern. I turned my head to look at him but I couldn’t see anything, I could only hear his screeeee screeee screeees, as he got more and more excited at the thought of gulping another discarded minnow. It’s almost as though he actually knew how to stay out of sight but still get his minnows. I could turn my head to the right, up, left, and have a real tough time locating him. Then I would throw another minnow in the water and swoooosh!, down he came in a graceful demonstration of evolutionary aeronautic perfection.
This little game went on for a while; sometimes he disappeared off to land for 10 minutes and returned now and then to see if I had more shiners for him. Eventually, as I built a little confidence in him, I was able to call him in close with a sound I can’t begin to describe in words. I could get him to circle and come in really close with a series of tsk, tks tsks. He became more and more trusting as time went on, as long I rewarded him with minnow after minnow, of course. I had made a new friend. I’ve decided his name is Terny.
The unique thing about Terny is that he only comes around when I’m not accompanied by someone in the boat. Anytime I’m perch fishing alone, he comes to visit at one point in the day. When he does come around, I ask him how the fishing is that day and he responds with another barrage of Screeee! Screeee! Screeeee!, which I’m starting to suspect means Give me minnows! Minnows! More!! I’m starting to really like this little bird.
The reward of this interaction, and I suspect the reason I’m writing this, is difficult to explain. The best way I can put it is that it feels like the discovery something extraordinary, that you want to share with everyone but cannot, because only you can see it. The experience provides me with something that I can’t objectify, quantify or measure. It brings me back to a time when everything had yet to be discovered ; a time when becoming a bird was as simple as closing my eyes and picturing the growing distance between myself and the earth below as I flapped my wings ; a time when there were no limits to imagination. In the moments when Terny comes by and we hang out, there is no death, no war, no disease. I can’t help but think that in his mind, there’s curiosity as well when he looks into my strange floating machine and that he too, for that moment feels an overwhelming sense of simple serenity. I bring him minnows, and he thanks me with a reminder of just how trivial and petty many of the things we so strongly hold onto really are.
I really do long to be a tern, just for one day.
Until next time, stay outside. Jigger