Col. Othniel Sweet’s Mysteries of Nature, # 11 (blackbirds)
As to the dropping of the blackbirds, I am of the opinion they were not happy in their work, though more intricate or sensical theories abound. Lightning, say some, hail, strange behavior of clouds about the moon. My own sire was one who treasured weather explanations in all matters, but I could not follow his lead (may he rest in peace). Still others opine that when the magnetic north shifts, it wrecks a mechanism in creatures who cross, on those occasions, the path of some wave emission never yet successfully observed nor by science described. My father, again, might have concurred. The silk of their feathers stiffened and legs in rigor, open of eye but showing no wounds, the birds cover a field, a country road, a feedlot and green tin roof of a shed, so many party favors to commemorate the who-knows-what?
Arkansas, then Louisiana, next out in west Texas or Tennessee knob country, not long after the winter solstice and snow general about their hibernal habitat. Therefore: How? Why? Surely not, as calm biology says to the unlearned public, “commonplace and of no significant note.” And not weather.
Others want to leap beyond all natural belief and cry omen, symbol, a shot across the bow from the Divine. I have heard the vocal pundits who cry “End Time” and display a scramble of scripture, rending their shifts and shirts, while others claim the redwings’ demise is a letter in an alphabet which no one left is able to read. Old salts avow they’ve just struck newfangled electrical lines, the deadly charge leaping blue from bird to bird, or perhaps some lead navigator miscued and they struck the flank of a passing caravan here, a freight train there, another incident merely involving brashy surprises of wind and ground suddenly tilted at an unexpected pitch.
My conjecture is far simpler. They have found their appointed tasks unrewarding so have pondered, threshed it out amongst themselves and agreed—a flock here, a covey there, in some zones an entire tribe—the slings and arrows outweigh the pleasures of even flight, all soaring, gliding, swooping and such being much overrated. And what are the appointed duties, after all, of passerine songbirds? To rid the woods of certain vermin or at least to control this nit, that leaf chewer, some other bloodsucker, beetle, mantis? And one must not neglect the obvious ornamental mission. Sleek on the cattail stalks above riffled water, they ruff their wings and preen, the red and jonquil patches on their shoulders like crests left where some greater being has touched them alive. To entertain bipedal, wingless cousins, their calls scissor the air, give the day a sheen, but they always seem more exercised than satisfied, ever on the brink of a heartstruck keen. At their best, of course, when they whirl en masse in flight just overhead at dawn or dusk, when their pattern unfolds a sheer wonder like the sweep of Jezebel’s shawl when she leaves a room for the final time.
But suppose repetition and the intricacies of pecking order, flight plan, sequence of performance for their knife-edged hymns, and the limitations of slight brains all conspire to instill exhaustion, and in the conversation they are forever surely having (which we do not know so much as the chatter of the larger, fewer, more local crows) they agree to mass self-murder. Such would present no problem to imagine, to understand and empathize. Have we not often in our own covenants and concessions approached such emptiness which could be cured by no other means than solitude in a maimed whirlwind world where no solitude survives? I imagine the first whispers among them, discordant, amplified restlessness at their lack of rest, then the following ripple effect, agreement in pairs and threes, the sentiment gathering force by night, then infecting instinct, replacing habit, growing as a storm musters mysterious pressures of temperature, humidity, direction and ill intent, until amid their hushing wingbeats, as if some larger force had waved a secret oriflamme or uttered an unmistakable command, they curtail a standard pattern in mid-maneuver, adjust their brilliant compasses and abandon intervals. In near-silence they collide, one with another, smash and tangle, spin crippled, collapse and plummet, come to the earth as bad manna, having suffered the trauma scholars find in the many casualties gathered the next day when passersby, gawkers, conspiracy addicts all spread the alarm, and what this all means for us is perhaps that reiterant action has its costs, pattern is lethal, beauty is exhausting, flocking not so salutary as previously thought, but thought matters, and we must meander our own maps now wondering if a resonance from these enigmas is meant to shiver our blood and bones and force us to ask, as so little does these somber days, are we still ourselves treading a shining path, and what is left to fill the hollow that follows the loss of zeal? We must beware blistering disappointments of spirit is what I mean to mean, but not weather, not chaos unsought, not evil. How these fallen angels are sacrificed to startle us awake and what lurks over the horizon—such matters lie just beyond my ken.