When Bruce came home for lunch, I went out to join him in the kitchen and almost stepped on a bird. It was lying, face down, wings outstretched, on the family room carpet. How did it get in the house? Bruce pointed out that I'd left the sliding door cracked open--to let the kitty out. I wondered briefly if the kitty had brought the bird in, but knew that she wouldn't have. She can barely catch butterflies, and she was outside basking in the sun.
Probably this bird got confused by the windows of the sliding door, maybe hit one and ended up flying inside through the partially opened door.
I picked the bird up, gently. It moved a bit, but settled in my hands. Its heart was beating briskly. No blood. Its eyes were closed, but it opened them and looked around, then closed them.
I felt badly that it had gotten inside the house. A few years ago, I bought some window decals after the red-bellied woodpecker I'd been watching all winter crashed into the window and died, its long woodpecker tongue flickering out one last time as I came out to see what had happened. I was so sad about this that I'd cried as I buried the woodpecker.
I didn't know what kind of bird this bird was. It was tiny with stripy brown feathers. There was a bit of yellow at the rump and along the wings. I took a picture; I didn't want to put down the bird to page through my Peterson's guide.
I took it outside to see if it would try to fly away, but it didn't. It just sat in my hand and panted, heart pounding. I decided against just putting it on the ground--afraid the kitty might see it, though probably she wouldn't--when it comes to stalking, she only sees moving things.
So I sat there with the bird in my hands on the patio. Her heart beat quickly against my palm, her beak was slightly open. (I found out later it was a female Pine Siskin.) I wondered if she was frightened--of me, or of dying. I hoped she wasn't in any pain.
As I sat there holding her, I thought about the car accident I was in last week. A driver ran a red light and ran into the passenger's side of my car.
I only barely saw it coming, out of the corner of my eye. It was mostly a surprise, as my car was hit (I think I said "Oh!") and spun around, hitting a telephone pole. I just kind of sat in stunned silence after it happened.
I also thought about that Lewis Thomas Essay "On Natural Death" in which he writes about seeing his cat with her prey and wondering if the mouse felt pain "all over its body" as it was being carried in the cat's mouth. A doctor and scientist, he decides that the mouse did not feel pain.
"Pain is useful for avoidance, for getting away when there’s time to get away, but when it’s end game, and no way back, pain is likely to be turned off, and mechanisms for this are wonderfully precise and quick." *
Thomas had actually seen this mechanism in action, as he witnessed two soldiers trapped in the wreckage of a car.
"The worst accident I’ve ever seen was on Okinawa, in the early days of the invasion, when a jeep ran into a troop carrier and was crushed nearly flat. Inside were two young MPs, trapped in bent steel, both mortally hurt, with only their heads and shoulders visible. We had a conversation while people with the right tools were prying them free. Sorry about the accident, they said. No, they said, they felt fine. Is everyone else okay, one of them said. Well, the other one said, no hurry now. And then they died."*
I wonder if that's what the bird was feeling. I hope she wasn't feeling pain, just feeling stunned.
I got a rag from the kitchen, because I wanted to set the bird down in the ivy under the hydrangea, but I didn't want her to be cold. I put her on the rag, and, before I could set her in the ivy, she stretched out her wings once, twice, and then she tucked her beak into her breast and died.
The way life departs from a living being is remarkable. One moment there is life, the next, there is a handful of feathers.
Remembering the Thomas essay, I thought of his humane scientific explanation of endorphins and pain receptors:
"If I had to design an ecosystem in which creatures had to live off each other and in which dying was an indispensable part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage."
Dying is inevitable, so there's a mechanism to make it bearable. But there's also the pain from watching another being die--as far as I know, there's no mechanism yet to turn that off.
*[From The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, by Lewis Thomas]