The immensity of the psychic and linguistic distances between us and birds is something we rarely think about. It doesn’t make us sad that we cannot talk to or become friends with the birds we encounter in the field, at least not typically. Which is exactly why I found the chapter “The Friendly Bicolored Antbird” from the ornithologist Alexander Skutch’s memoir A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm so moving.
Skutch describes in great detail the emergence of a relationship between him and one of the resident birds of the forest adjacent to his home, a bicolored antbird. The bicolored antbird is an army ant attendant, one of many species of tropical birds from various families that follow army ant swarms through the tropical rainforest, picking off insects desperately fleeing from the ants. One day, as Skutch walked through his forest, he noticed a bicolored antbird following him. As Skutch advanced along the trail, the bird would snatch up insects scared into revealing themselves by Skutch’s movements. The bird was using him in the same way it relied on army ants to reveal camouflaged insects, which is fascinating in itself.
Skutch goes on to describe how he spent sixteen months having similar interactions with the same bicolored antbird. He named him Jimmy, short for Gymnopithys bicolor, and they went on dozens of walks together before Jimmy disappeared. At the end of the chapter, Skutch reflects:
No other free bird that I have known has trusted me so greatly, has so unhesitatingly approached the human form, which most wild creatures dread. Nevertheless, our relationship lacked something to make it wholly satisfying. For this, it needed some exchange of thoughts, some mutual revelation of sentiments or feelings.
Skutch’s lament is one I haven’t read or heard articulated anywhere else, probably because the impossibility of a scenario where we could communicate with birds is so clearly farfetched. But it’s the earnestness and tenderness of Skutch’s thoughts that make him my favorite writer.
A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Skutch’s forest. I spent two weeks exploring his home and encountering in life fascinating birds I had until then known only from his memoirs, like black-faced antthrush, speckled tanager, and great tinamou. But nothing prepared me for the moment when I noticed a shadow whir across the path in front of me into a tangled thicket. I peered carefully into the foliage, seeing nothing, and then, beneath a leaf, a face, a blue ring of skin around the brown eye of a bicolored antbird. The bird hopped forward onto a more visible part of the bush and stared at me.
I knew what to do. I started walking and made sure to brush my boots against the leaf litter. The bicolored antbird zigzagged across the trail behind me, staying with me for a good minute before disappearing off into the forest. I could not believe my good fortune, that I was able to recreate one of my favorite moments in one of my favorite books. When I think about that moment now, I think also of Skutch’s yearning for some kind of deeper communication with Jimmy. I feel the same twitch of regret, that the mystery of communication could not be solved.
In all my birding, if I could choose just one bird to have spoken to, it would be the bicolored antbird that followed me through Skutch’s forest. There is so much I would’ve wanted to ask him. Was he a member of Jimmy’s line? What was it like living in Skutch’s forest? What was it like living in a tropical rainforest? What did he think of people? Aren’t army ants kinda scary? What’s it like being a bird? How did he know to not be afraid of me? Would he like to walk with me again next morning?
But like Skutch, I was lucky just to have been able to enjoy that level of intimacy with a wild and free bird, even if only for the briefest moment. What birds would say to us will always remain a mystery. But what if just once, you could cross the divide? If the mystery of communication was solved for just one day, and you could have a conversation with any one individual bird you have known in your life, which would it be?
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