Saturday, March 1, 2008

Flights of Fancy...

[This is another Bill Bryson moment I had on the plane last night; not a whole lot to do with my travels, so I apologize for the rambling.]

I passed a sign the other day that said, "The best things in life aren't things". So true. It's funny how you can spend a lot of money on stuff, yet enjoy the free moments in life far more. Even little ones that might happen every day, but you probably never stop to think about; sometimes if you pay a little attention, something special can happen...
One great thing about the beautiful weather in Hawaii is that it allows so many restaurants to be open-air, which, as anyone who knows me well can attest, I really like. I must have more Mediterranean DNA in me than my parents let on: I think I was meant to live in that kind of climate year-round. I can't imagine a heaven without a little taverna by an Aegean harbor, with a little old couple serving fresh Greek tomato salad, feta cheese and spinach pie. (And of course some island wine to go with it).

And one thing that comes with outdoor restaurants is-- birds!
Hawaii has its fair share of pigeons, but also some pretty white doves and asoorted other smaller brown things although, surpisingly enough, no seagulls-- it's true! Look it up; something to do with the lack of tides.
Now, I'll be the first to admit I'm actually not even sure that they were pigeons and doves, I just know they looked pretty much like that. In fact, as much as I like birds, I'm pretty much an idiot when it comes to identifying them. An average six year old knows more species of dinosaurs than I know avians. I can spot a chicken straight away, I can work out the basic body plan of a penguin, and I'm pretty sure about ostriches, but then they are pretty similar to emus, you know, so don't bet the ranch on my ornithological prowess.
Anyway, I always seem to attract a motley bunch of them while dining alfresco. I suppose the fact that I constantly drop crumbs could be a possible explanation.
It's not that I'm a particularly messy eater, at least not any more so than your average senile octogenarian; I sometimes drop crumbs on purpose. I've been feeding birds for a long time, but in Honolulu something quite special happened--twice. The first day, as I was haviing lunch in Tiki's, a nice open-air place near the beach, I started giving pieces of some quesadillas to a pretty mottled white and red pigeon, and happened to hold a crumb in my fingers and lower my hand for him to eat, but instead he hopped up onto my hand, cocked an eye at me, and pecked the food. When he was done he casually hopped down. I had to do it again; again he hopped up onto my hand and ate.
A few minutes later a waiter and waitress came by, and for some inspired reason I just held my empy hand out this time, and my little feathered friend flew right up onto it. The waitress gasped, and the waiter said, "I have never seen that happen before!" It was pretty cool. Heh, heh, little did they know I had given him the five-minute course in hand-hopping.

Then the next day I lunched at another place outside, and happened to get a free muffin with my fruit plate. I started tossing crumbs to the one pigeon nearby, and soon had a whole flock crawling over my shoes, complete with a huge "bully" pigeon who spent more time chasing the other birds away than he did eating, and all the while those tiny brown birds zoomed in and snatched crumbs up before their larger cousins could even react. I noticed one of them had three toes... that is, only one toe on one foot, and two on another. God knows what awful thing had happened to him to cause him to lose toes from both feet, but he was hopping around fine, and showed more courage than most... he even hopped up onto my table and found a few crumbs that had fallen off my plate. Cheeky little guy, you had to give him that!
But then I noticed one scruffy, older-looking pigeon who looked like he had gotten into some oil or something, his feathers looked thin and clumped, especially around the neck, but he was charging right in there with the rest of them, fighting for his share of crumbs. I wanted to get a closer look at him to see if anything was wrong, or maybe if something was stuck on his neck, so I just reached down and slowly scooped him up. I was amazed when he just sat calmly in my hand, not flapping or even trying to get away. We just looked at each other for a while. (He was probably thinking, "Ok, now where's my food?")
Now remember, this was a wild bird, almost certainly never touched by human hands before. Even dogs-- altough they've been bred to be docile for 20,000 generations-- when raised feral will simply never allow people to touch them. Yet this little bird, totally wild, trusted me enough to rest for a while in my hand. He (or she, I'm not sure; how can you tell?) eventually climbed out onto the table, walked to the edge, and flew off to another table to beg for more meals. I never could see anything wrong except for the oily feathers.
Later that day, reading about how America's giant farm factories treat chickens in Peter Singer's landmark book Animal Liberation, I was struck by the differences in their situations because of us: millions of chickens are forced to spend their short lives crowded together in hot, stifling, ammonia-reeking darkness, fear and misery, with less wire cage surface to live on than a quarter of your computer screen (it's true; look it up), and then there's old Scruffy Neck, calmly trusting me to lift him up to stare at me face to face, or brave little Three Toes, brazenly jumping onto my table for a snack. Sure, they have to scrounge for their food, but in the end, they get to fly away. There's really no comparison at all.
The wild ones may fight for food, but they won't have to fight for breathing space... something to consider next time you pick up a bucket at KFC-- one of the worst offenders, by the way.
In fact, it made me think: if I could perceive actual personalities and character in such a short time with the few I actually paid attention to, how many others have similar attributes that we'd rather not think about as we eat them?
Anyway, for what it's worth, I just thought I'd share. These are things I think about while flying over a dark ocean at night when I should be sleeping. Thanks for reading... and I hope you don't think I'm going daft!

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