A Bird in the Hand

A dead bird lay in the middle of the patio. It hadn’t been there in the morning. It showed no sign of injuries, of having been grabbed by a cat, or of having had to fight for its life. It couldn’t have flown into a window. It was too far from the house and the windows weren’t clean enough to fool any bird. Did it simply fall from the sky with a bird-sized heart attack or stroke leaving a small hole in the air to be filled by a new generation?

I wasn’t certain what kind of bird it was. I could tell from its short stubby beak that it had been a seedeater. I suspected a finch, probably a female house finch since it looked about the right size and lacked the rosy red breast of the male. But dead it was and smack dab in the center of the path to the garden, not an ideal spot to leave it in, at least from my perspective.

Turkey vultures circled overhead as was their custom at that hour in the late afternoon. Daily they appeared, singly or in loose formations. It was business as usual for them on the mountain. I took the dead bird to the fire trail just beyond the house and put it out in the middle thinking to provide the vultures the kind of meal they were looking for, a meal they would probably have discovered for themselves had I left it on the path to the garden. Three drifted overhead wheeling, turning, gliding back and forth close to the ground. I have often watched them as they sail over the hillside cocking their heads from side to side and imagine them to have an eye keen enough to penetrate the chaparral and spot any fallen creature that might be there. The finch would make an easy target.

I went back up the driveway to a sheltered spot where I could watch from a distance. Several times the vultures flew directly over the hapless finch but gave no indication of having seen it. I waited. A fourth one joined the circling. Slowly they extended their searching pattern farther down the valley. At last they were gone. This finch was not to depart this world so quickly.

Perhaps the yellow jackets, much smaller but equally well suited to deal with nature’s dead, would be the final beneficiaries of the remains of the fallen finch. I have seen yellow jackets completely consume a well-fed rattlesnake with a bulging belly that perished after getting stuck in a fence, a feat that took less than a day.

I left the finch where it was, knowing somehow life on the mountain could deal with this death, more effectively than I could, cleaning up after its own.

The next morning birds once again filled the air. On the fire trail the finch was gone. Close to where the finch had been, I picked up a bottle and a candy wrapper and took them back to the garbage can.

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