In what became an internet sensation, an ornithologist once wrote about a colony of sparrows who, due to a genetic mutation exacerbated by the founder effect on their small offshore island home, could not sing within the range of other sparrows’ hearing. Forced to inbreed, their population grew smaller and smaller due to infertile eggs and the slow arch of time.

These birds–the “loneliest sparrows on the planet” were the subject of a documentary, a Kickstarter, and even some internet innovations aimed at making their high-pitched songs understandable to mainland sparrows (who could presumably then flit over and add fresh new blood to the isolate population dynamics). But the sparrows proved elusive; the island often varied from description to description, and those islands matching the descriptions often contained no sparrows. Those that did typically featured thoroughly natural birdsong audible to human and bird alike.

There was a reason. The ornithologist’s piece had been a fabrication–they claimed it was a piece of fiction, though they’d had no qualms about basking in the adulation of internet denizens.

The elusive sparrows were in fact illusive sparrows, more a metaphor of the longing of human nature to fit creatures into anthropomorphic narratives than anything else.

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“I have heard the two-legs talking,” purred the cat in a voice both soft and satisfied. “You are to be taken to a great pride-leader of theirs as a prize and curiosity.”

“It matters not,” replied the Huia male, gently rubbing his thick beak against the dark plumage of his mate, “as long as we are together.”

“Oh, you will be,” said the cat, shifting her balance slightly as the ship bobbed amid light waves. “The two-legs will stuff you with sawdust and wires, side by side. I have heard of it from toms in port.”

“As long as we are together,” the female huia said. She cooed softly and returned her mate’s gesture with her long beak like a curved needle.”

“Bah, such mawkishness is no kind of sport,” snarled the cat. “No wonder your kind is rare enough to be a curiosity.” She turned to the next cage in the ship’s hold. “What about you, owl?” she said. “How does it feel to be among the last of your kind, taken from your home to be stuffed by a pride of two-legs?”

“Ah..ahah..AHAHAHAHAHA!” one of the owls cackled. “Hehehehe…you want to have a bit of sport with us, two-legs, is that it? Maybe agree to, heh, open our cages and let you end our misery early? AHAHAHAHA!”

“And why not?” said the cat, speaking the patois common to predators in a low and mewling voice. “A quick snap…I would do it clean. You’d die a warrior’s death. Who knows, you and your queen there might even best me and fly away to safety.”

“Ahahaha…AHAHAHA!” cackled the female laughing owl. “We’ve heard things as well, you know. There was a sort of…ahahaha…little bird that once lived not far from where we did. Killed by cats they were, all of them! And do you know what the two-legs did in return? They killed the cats, all of them!” The owls chortled together.

“So…ahaha…so you see, cat, we may be bound for a stuffing, but you’re surely not” the male cackled. “Eat one feather of ours or our amorous fellow-passengers and the two-legs will snuff you out like a blind cricket!”

The cat hissed and snarled in return. But, recognizing the futility of the gesture, it turned and sulked out of sight.

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Did you know that most birds are actually hipsters? It’s true.

Why?

Because they were tweeting something every few minutes before it was cool.

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Echyd told tales, and Oesoedd related parables. The younger fledgelings of the flock much preferred Echyd’s rollicking and often bawdy yarns of nuthatches and titmice, but Oesoedd was the elder bird–close to the eldest, in fact, near as anyone could tell–and respect demanded that his windy moralistic tales be aired and heard.

Sparrows who had lived with Oesoedd or heard his father speak once upon a time knew that certain situations would automatically result in certain stories. For instance, when a fledgeling began to accept food too readily from llew, the great striding two-legged predators, showing signs of tameness, Oesoedd would flap over to them and relate one of his favorite parables.

“Have I told you, youngster, the tale of the Cat and the Birdfeeder?”

The fledgelings always knew better than to answer that they had, so Oesoedd would continue.

“Once, there was a birdfeeder with a cat that lived nearby. A sparrow that frequented the feeder was wary of the cat, as he should have been, despite the cat’s assurances. ‘You have nothing to fear from me, sparrow, the cat would say, ‘for I am a housecat and well-fed by the humans, and your scrawny bones aren’t worth the effort to catch.’ The sparrow decided to simply ignore the cat and keep eating at the feeder every day. And, seemingly true to its word, the cat seemed content to sun itself lazily nearby. In time, the sparrow grew used to the cat’s presence and regarded it almost as it would a rock or a shrub. But then, one day, the housecat was not fed as it usually was, and the sparrow approached unawares. In a flash of teeth and claws, the cat caught the bird, toyed with it for a bit, and then slew it to be devoured. For you see, the cat had let the sparrow grow accustomed to its presence just so it might strike easily when the time came.”

The implication of Oesoedd’s parables was always the same: tameness of any sort led inexorably to grisly death.

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People are always making the mistake of either underestimating or over anthropomorphizing animals. The truth is that they understand much about us, much more than we would suspect, but do so in a profoundly different way.

The animals of Huntgren Wood had long known that man was a dangerous predator, one that used a strange and sometimes invisible throwing claw to kill from a great distance. But generations ago they had also noticed that some humans would stalk and go through the motions of hunting but not take a kill. They would raise a strange appendage to their face–like but unlike the one they used to throw claws–and yet nothing would burst forth, only a quiet click audible only to those extremely close.

Prey animals thought this another inscrutable behavior of a predator, much like the way bears would sometimes climb and claw at beehives despite their lack of any real meat. The predators, in turn, felt it was play-hunting of the sort they had engaged in as youngsters fresh from the den–the humans were no doubt practicing stalking a kill before actually taking it, largely because that’s what the predators themselves would have done.

It fell to the birds who lived on the edge of the wood and fed on the strange and miraculous self-replenishing trees near human caves to uncover the true secret. Their love songs incorporated what they had seen and heard, and the birds of Huntgren sang of humans stalking with the strange square hoofs and then retreating to their caves, only to produce strange miniature forests and animals with which they decorated their caves. A curious coyote confirmed the tale with a terrified squirrel, while a bobcat received a detailed and matching account from a housecat it was half-courting, half-stalking.

Each clade of the forest dwellers reacted to the news differently. The predators felt that the humans were stealing their essence, drawing some kind of nourishment from it, and vowed never to be thus captured. The prey, especially the deer, felt that the process was akin to being gathered into the next life, where their traditions held that they were forever safe from predation. They felt there was no harm in the process–perhaps even some good–though they continued to be skittish as it was often difficult to tell a human’s intent from a safe distance. For their part, the birds and squirrels made a game of it, delighting in moving out of the way before the human could bring its capture-box to bear.

And that’s all it was–yet another inscrutable activity by an inscrutable race–until the oldest and grandest stag in the forest began to feel the twin horns of disease and old age and decided that a human capture-box and eternal life on a cave wall would be the only fitting end to his reign.

Inspired by this image.

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It happened that, in the course of a hard-fought pursuit, a sparrow tricked a hawk into diving at its reflection in a human window. The sparrow, which had eaten seeds from the yard for many weeks, knew of the window’s presence and pulled up at the last second; the hawk did not know and was killed on impact.

Such a situation was quite unprecedented. Hawks were killed all the time in botched pursuits, but never in such a way that their prey could be blamed for the deed. The hawks claimed that their ancient prerogative as predators, recognized by all the avian elders who implicitly acquiesced thereto, had been upset by the act. They demanded the offending sparrow be surrendered to them for summary execution along with its kinsfolk–enough to equal the weight of the dead hawk.

The sparrows, for their part, held that they were well within their rights as prey to trick hawks–only the most foolish or clumsy birds would actually die or be injured, and weeding them out would actually be doing the hawks a favor. The hawk elders, they argued, implicitly recognized the right of prey to flee or defend itself.

Squabbles over the dispute continued for months; eventually the sparrows and the hawks were forced to agree to an outside party to review the situation and mediate. That was easier said than done, though, as the raptors would not countenance prey birds standing in judgement over them and the sparrows maintained that any bird of prey would be unfairly biased toward the hawk.

Eventually they agreed to ask the vultures, who ate meat but did not kill it, to mediate. Geier, the elder vulture of the area, agreed to study the case on the condition that whatever judgement he rendered be accepted without question. When the time came, this is what he said:

“We vultures can soar on thermals as well as any raptor and our talons are just as sharp, yet you have long derided us as weaklings as we do not kill. We are as clever and adept at locating food as any forager, yet the sparrows and their ilk shun us because we eat not nuts or berries but the honored dead. Our own view, that we are purifiers who guide the souls of the dead to oneness with the land, has never been seriously entertained by any but our own.”

“We will therefore carry a petition to the Creator to ask that the offending sparrow and the nestmate of the slain hawk be made to change places. Since they despise each other so, this will serve many constructive purposes from punishment to enlightenment. If they return after one full cycle of the night orb, we will hold the matter settled.”

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“Those funny little birds…why do they keep telling me to whip poor Will?” asked young Petunia. “Do they mean Will Camden next door? What’ve they got against poor Will?”

“It’s just what the birds’ call sounds like, dear,” said Auntie May. “They don’t actually want you to whip poor Will.”

I wanted her to whip poor Will
, one of the birds thought glumly. He throws rocks at us sometimes.