A few years ago I found myself sitting in my parked car, the engine off but still warm, making those clicking sounds engines newly at rest tend to make. I was staring at birds circling under gray skies over an abandoned bus depot, and I was envious. Albeit briefly.
Twenty minutes prior I had taken part in a quite heated exchange with my boss and I was off the clock a few hours early, my workday attenuated at the end of another augmented workweek. For months now the workweeks had consisted of nine or so shifts split between two different restaurants. Forty to sixty hours a week. Week after week. I was working double because I had to make up for all the time I spent out of town losing income on tour.
A few months prior to my stressed out bird watching day, I had moved out of my apartment and, unable to pay rent on another while on tour, sold everything I had that didn’t fit in my car, packed the rest into boxes, packed those boxes into said car, and began sleeping on couches in the living rooms of generous friends. I spent many nights walking the streets of Richmond alone, tired from a fourteen hour workday but even more tired of imposing, too timid to call a friend and ask the couch was free that evening. To say the least, it was an incredibly stressful time in my life.
And so I sat in my car watching birds, thinking about my life and the choices I had made. At that particular moment I could see no foreseeable end to my current overworked, over-imposing life, and so I couldn’t even comfort myself with any estimates as to roughly when this too shall pass, without which, the estimates, the platitude severely lost its capacity to balm. With no place to really go and no motivation to leave, I sat there in my car listening to the engine click and watching these birds fly. Soon I, like many before me, was afflicted with bird envy. I saw that their flight, right there in that cold gray sky above that empty bus depot, mocked me. Their freedom to escape further accentuated how drastically I was buried under and tethered to my present circumstances. I caught myself, for a split second, wishing that I was one of those birds. That I was free like them.
But then called bullshit on all of that. I looked up at the birds again, but this time at the actual flying creatures and not at the symbols we assign them. And I started thinking.
Here were brids. They were flying. Over a bus depot. Now, if I were a bird and I had complete freedom and all that other crap we like to say about birds, god knows I wouldn’t spend my time hanging out over an ugly bus depot! I’d at least go a few miles away to the river, maybe head upstream to the mountains or downstream to the ocean. Anything really but a depot. So these birds here most likely weren’t actually up in the sky squawking about their freedom. They weren’t up there to brag. They weren’t up there to mock me. I am no oranthologist but I decided that day and am still pretty certain that the birds were flying for one or both of two possible reasons: 1.) hunger 2.) safety. That’s it. In fact, I doubt birds even have the capacity to mock others or understand fun or appreciate freedom. Their tiny bird brains are almost entirely occupied with avoiding death and acquiring food.
See, most birds suck at being on the ground. You’ve seen this before. They walk like idiots. Their wings are useless for lifting anything but their own bodies, so they’re left to peck at stuff with the grace of a hand-tied Midwesterner in a pie eating contest. Also, pretty much every animal that eats meat is in agreement that birds are delicious. As a result I’d bet that grounded birds spend their whole awkward time walking around terrified of claws and teeth. To avoid said teeth and claws, they spend most of their time in the air, which I can only imagine takes quite a bit of energy to maintain. Which means they have to eat. Which means they have to go back on the ground. And the cycle repeats. Forever. Until they die (almost never peacefully in their sleep).
In summation, when birds aren’t busy being terrified of death on the ground they’re spending the rest of their miserable lives fighting off starvation (and occasional predators) in the air.
I realized that those birds I was watching were flying in general to avoid dying, and they were flying specifically over that bus depot to avoid starving. They weren’t free to do anything.