A Bird on the Brain

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 1998, Tom Bentley




I have seen obsession's face—and it's that of a tiny bird. Dawn brings a manic messenger to my house every morning, but it's not Helios drawing the chariot of the sun across the sky: It's an insistent tap-tap-tapping, a sound that's become a household constant, like a leaky pipe or loud clock. For the past eight months, all my mornings have been punctuated—and sometimes punctured—by a crazed bird bopping, beating and blasting itself against my windows, on some quest unknown.

What happens is this: as soon as the sun rises, my winged challenger is once again moved by his inner directive, which is to slam himself over and over again against the windows of my house. He will pause for a moment or two, to jump to the window's edge and peer in, tilting his head this way and that to confirm that indeed this is the right place, the necessary place, no other will do—and then he begins his sorties anew. Sometimes he'll do it for an hour, sometimes several hours, but it seems that it's something he cannot not do.

You can see that I'm going to anthropomorphize shamelessly here, attributing human motivations and perceptions to the little feathered scourge, but I won't apologize. Ascribing motivational traits is one of our ways, however deluded and inaccurate, of relating to things, and because this bird has insisted that it's a part of my life, I have to try and relate as best I'm able. And mostly because I'm unable to get my hands directly on the beast.

Besides, I already tried the scientific approach and failed. I called the Humane Society a couple of times and was told that the behavior would only continue for a week, or two weeks at the most. They suggested that the bird was either exhibiting its spring mating behavior, a winged Narcissus confusedly trying to mate with its own image, or that it was defending its territory against a mirrored intruder. They cautioned me, verbatim, not to molest the bird—I suppose they thought I might have some strange spring mating rituals of my own.

Using their suggestions, my girlfriend and I put up large colored prints of intimidating hawks, owls and eagles on the windows. With the fearlessness of the mad, my bird pecked without ceasing. Then we hung scarves and long strips of aluminum foil in front of the windows to distract the creature, but it only used them as landing strips to guide its flight to the glass. We then put up screens on all the exposed panes, thinking that if the reflection was muted, the bird wouldn't have the triggering reflection. Instead, he just flings himself against the screens and sticks there, feet outstretched and clinging, a star gymnast in a private circus of his own. Spring left us months ago, but my airborne pal is still here.

Now the bird has become my own mood ring, a reflection of my state. Since I work at home, it's just me and the bird, lunacy and union, now and forever, one and inseparable. Some mornings, I welcome it, calling out, "The towhee's here!" and speculating on its mood. (Science and astute birding aside, my girlfriend and I have decided the bird is a towhee, simply because we heard of a towhee exhibiting the same relentless behavior. We give a name to the thing that torments us, again that fumbling way of trying to relate, to somehow get inside.) Other mornings, I'm as crazed as the bird is, leaping up to the window he's currently charging (which only deters his return for a moment or two), or flinging pillows, paperback books or curses at him, none of which have a tangible impact in the checking of his mad quest.

And why do I figure the towhee is a "he"? It's something to do with his manner, a certain air of crazed cockiness. After a round of window bashing, he will do a proud little strut, a victory dance. During the spring, each round of window fluttering would be followed by the bird flying a short distance off, where it would land, throw its head back and let go of a little Charlie Parker solo, a piping trill of assurance and territoriality. He appeared to stubbornly insist on the appropriateness of these antics, a trait I see more on Adam's side of the sexual divide.

And it's not like our ragged cat is going to threaten this bird's ascendancy on our property. She's afraid of moths, leaves, air; she seems to have had her instincts surgically removed. Our cat couldn't catch a bird if it was FedXed to her. But my towhee friend seems to have had his instincts surgically, or perhaps chemically, enhanced. You've probably heard of those birds that eat freely of those fermented bush berries in the spring and that fly drunkenly about in a happy stupor. My towhee seems to have found a bush with berries made of crack, and he pipes up before he comes knock, knock, knocking at my door.

For a while, I figured that the towhee would just kill itself, either by the physical battering or by some final bursting of an aneurysm is its fevered brain, but now I don't think so. Now I think that the towhee might outlast me here, and that long after I'm gone he'll have an occasional idle thought about my whereabouts. But then he'll just go back to his employment, his calling, his urge—there are windows to pound, dammit!

Obsession—and its more powerful cousin, madness—comes in many sizes and shapes (even in a modest package like my little bird), but it seems to have its keenest resonance when it has a victim, something or someone to lay claim to, to ensnare. If a bird falls against a window in the forest, who would hear? But here, it's me and the towhee, inside and out, staring at our transparent mirrors. It's clear that the towhee and me don't quite understand one another, but at least we can wave wings at each other through the glass. We're neighbors—it's a community, of sorts.

You know the scene in Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, where the monstrously oppressed protagonist, in his paroxysms of homicidal guilt, hears the maddening, insistent sounds of his murder victim's beating heart from below the floor boards where he has him buried? The crazed narrator keeps insisting on how well the crime was handled, how much in control he is, while you, the reader, feel the pages of the story damp with his sweat. Well, the towhee makes me feel that way: I deliberate methods in my mind to deal with him, as though I'm in complete control, but often the steady relentless challenge of his beating swats my control away.

Combine madness and determination and you have a lot of power, no matter the bearer's size. Consider how a minuscule mosquito can truly inflame your senses with crazed rage. I've spent sleepless hours slamming the walls of my house with pillows, slapping my own face when one buzzed near, in futile pursuit of the humming antagonist. What pleasure it is to kill your adversary! But many times they've won the battle and I've sunk limp, defeated and sweaty under the covers. For a while, I relished the thought of trapping the towhee in a net, or popping it with a tennis racket into the next county. A few times I rushed out to pitch some ineffectual rocks at him when I was boiling over; other times I tried to spray him with a hose, thinking that might deter him. He'd just fly to a nearby tree and sing his little song of triumph.

I think you can look forward to dealing with something you hate, or something you think that you hate, but that you've grown used to. We can relish our precious rage, and it can even be frustrating to have it taken away, like when you've finally decided to go out on your porch and scream at a constantly barking dog and just before you do, the sound disappears. Oscar Wilde said you should be very careful in the choice of your enemies. In a perverse way, I look forward to the towhee's visits.

He is a bird on a mission, determined, persevering. And it's his perseverance that's the most amazing/infuriating/admirable of all. What does he want? It reminds me of the old Lassie TV series, when Lassie would approach some clueless citizen with the insistent bark, "Help! Someone's trapped in a well, or lost in a cave, or about to be compacted in a trash compactor! Why are you staring at me like a stupid human?" But unlike Lassie, this bird doesn't seem to want to lead me anywhere for a rescue.

My girlfriend suggested letting the bird in, because that's what it appears to want. But no, I fear its impenetrable animalness; I think it would go straight for my eyes. Maybe the towhee has a mean streak a mile wide, like that flesh-piercing bunny in Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail. I'm afraid I'll end up on one of those gruesome shows, When Animals Attack! Actually, I'm not even certain it wants in, to be inside my particular house. Sometimes it seems to me that the bird just is butting up against life, against life's windows, life's barriers, affirming its right to butt up, its right to be here, an annoyance, a living thing. He has such a bright expression of unconscious will, the hard-filed flint of personality, damn the cost.

The towhee has earned my respect, and not a little because he is mad. There's a bit of Charlie Manson in his dark, beady eyes, something operating back there that I can never know—and that's just as well. Even in my rain-tight suburban house, I know there is some kind of bridge between us and the animals, but I'm not invited to fully cross over. I'm sure that I'll miss the towhee when he's gone, but as the Dan Hicks song says, "How can I miss you when you won't go away?"