This can seem a quiet time for bird watching. Winter is, literally, quiet; there’s no dawn chorus of songbirds trilling for mates, no high pitched begging by disheveled fledglings of haggard looking adults. But winter does bring certain rewards, and this year, it’s partly in the form of an incursion of Snowy Owls from the north. There are so many of the birds that a trip to the New England coast is almost guaranteed to generate a sighting. Sure enough, when Malcolm and I went to Salisbury Beach last week, we spotted two of them. The first was hunkered down on a rock at the water’s edge. After half an hour, it took off, swept low over the sand and landed on a jetty 200 yards off. There is stayed for the rest of our walk. There were two photographers trailing the bird, both with expensive looking cameras on tripods and telephoto zoom. They followed it to the jetty and set up next to each other, their cameras trained on the bird from the best angle like twin cannons.
Owls, being predators, don’t do a whole lot most of the time, and sure enough, the bird sat atop the jetty staring out over the water. Occasionally, it would swivel its head and cast its dire gaze toward the photographers. At those moments, there would be flurry of audible shutter clicking, and then, when the bird looked away again, silence. I was, like many bird watchers, delighted to see this bird; it’s the first time I’ve ever seen this species. I felt compelled to stand and watch it for a while with my binoculars, though it barely moved. I found myself stealing glances at the sea ducks off to the left. Diving mergansers, Gadwall awkwardly picking over the rocks, and a Common Goldeneye struggling to choke down a whole sea urchin. This eye-watering feat took several minutes to accomplish, and when it was over, I looked back at the owl, feeling somehow guilty at not wanting to watch it much more.
Returning home, I checked in on our flock of chickens. They’re in close quarters these days, unwilling as they are to walk in the snow, and we introduced a new hen recently, who had worn out her welcome at my father’s coop for criminal behavior. On placing her in my coop, she underwent what resembled nothing so much as a gang’s ritual jumping in. Before her feet even touched the floor, the knives were out. The older hens in my flock started posturing, wings down, necks stretched up high and feathers flaring around their heads. The new girl made some nearly imperceptible movement and the old girls were suddenly leaping at her, jumping in the air and driving their feet at her eyes. She attempted to fight at first, but quickly realized she had no chance, as three birds pecked her comb bloody and gouged at her back. She tried hiding under the waterer, the feed bin, and in an old bucket they sometimes use as a provisional nest box. Everywhere she went they waited for her, and if any part became accessible, they launched an attack. Two or three girls whose social positions are somewhere in mid-flock hurriedly excused themselves and fled to the outside pen to wait it out. A perch was knocked awry, feed was spilling everywhere, and a clod of dried manure flew at me, striking my neck and slipping down inside my shirt. By the time the fracas eased, the new hen was cowering, flat to the floor, her face pressed into a corner of the coop, her breathing just barely perceptible.
Now, several days later, things have settled down, and everyone is settled onto a rung of the social ladder. Though their methods of enforcement are brutal, there’s something recognizable in chickens for this. It reminds me of a high school cafeteria, with its sharp demarcations between tables of jocks, drama geeks, beautiful people, the untouchable castes. There may be no overt violence, but there is a humming current of tension, of lines constantly being drawn and redrawn, tested and reinforced. Watching the chickens is like that. A subtle tap on the head to remind a subordinate that it’s not her turn to eat yet, or the nightly scrum for the warmest position on the roost, the omega always on the outside, one half of her body exposed to the cracking cold.
Though there is little more quotidian than chickens, there is something compelling about watching them. And while the owl was stunningly beautiful, it was also boring in its way. We are social animals ourselves, and concern ourselves almost constantly with the social strivings and failings and negotiations of other humans. What wonder, then, that I find little affinity with a stunning and solitary predator as it sits, alone on a rock, surveying the sea? A beautiful and a rare thing, but with no use for our sorts of social anxieties or aspirations, because it has no use for society.
Though they be humble, there will always be something compelling about chickens. I can admire a lone owl on the windswept beach, but I can see myself in the chickens, strutting, or creeping, alpha or omega, uneasy truces and manure flinging battles, and hopefully, at day’s end, a simultaneous, sometimes companionable rustling of feathers on feathers as we hunker down against the cold.