"The Speaking of Birds" by Elisa Gonzalez


Observations On All the Birds in the World 

(A Selection)


What makes a passerine a passerine?

the arrangement of bones in the palate
their peculiar sperm

*

in the Pleistocene
crocodile
troubled the elephantbirds

*

Emus have
wonderful
bohemian family life

*

The pink-headed duck
a pochard

often painted
handsome

though photographs show
a stiff neck
and big head

but photographs can lie too

*

Heliornithidae

all alone
is the Sun Bittern

hunts like a heron

flies

reveals bright patches
on rounded wings

*

In another country you come across
a guide to all the birds in the world

and without hesitation carry it to me
but while I begin at the beginning


you open the book as you please
drawing knowledge at random


*

The clue

hawks
have
eyes hooded with bone

falcons
do not

*

the general hooliganism of coots
lurking
like some mad uncle

*

of the ardeids
the Least Bittern
28 centimeters

cryptic
ambusher of fair-sized fish

*

parrots

lovebirds macaws ama-
zons parakeets rosellas
the Budgerigar fig-parrots

the extraordinary
hanging-parrots of Asia
which look like leaves

from a distance

lories and lorikeets
kakapo heaviest of all
cockatoos known for intelligence

emphatic brightness

much more of parrots later

*

the young swifts form
screaming parties

like teenagers
they spend their entire lives
on the wing


*

oilbird chicks
stuffed on the oily fruits of palms

*

the peculiar
Tooth-billed Pigeon of Samoa
like the Orange Dove of Fiji

*

like frogmouths
potoos
stand stock-still when frightened

remarkably toadlike
they close their eyes

*

along the banks of the Orinoco
Hoatzin chicks
two claws on the wrists
clamber branches

inept monkeys

when alarmed
they drop into the river below

soon after
they learn to fly

*

honeyguides
solicit help
to break into bees’ nests

*

Galbulidae
given in flight to wild aerobatics

*

We are circling the pond at twilight
swatting midges

arguing about whether the world
is known

and just as I say
Nothing remains to explore

you say
Look
a northern flicker

and yes there
a bird slashed red
along its black beak


*

genus Jynx
called “wrynecks”
twist and sway the neck
all snakelike

and scare

*

ground-hornbills color
the bill red
orange or yellow

the only
animal using cosmetics
Darwin suggested

*

nest near nests of aggressive wasps

a favorite trick of many kinds of
mousebirds

*

there is nothing frivolous
about an Ostrich

legs long
muscles bunched
like a football player’s thighs

*

lyrebirds and scrub-birds
treecreepers bowerbirds fairywrens
honeyeaters scrubwrens babblers
logrunners

have since fallen on hard times
far from the ancestral state

*

tyrant flycatchers

*

the Splendid Fairywren
spreads into a turquoise fan

*

the Cinclidae
underwater
walk like deep-sea divers
flashing their white eyelids

*

Holarctic treecreepers
on the trunks of trees
run only upward
in a spiral
for all the world like mice

*

In Berlin you see a flamingo
painted on a store window

and photograph your face
reflected in the glass-pink semi-
transparent flamingo


*

lovely little Mistletoebird
builds a hanging nest like a purse

*

red-billed Queleas drift
in huge swirling flocks
across Africa in search of
the rains

*

the Sharp-beaked Finch
from seabirds
drinks the blood

*

all sparrowlike in general mien
the towhees
moonwalk

*

in the deep past
siskins
were blown to the New World

*

long-tailed tits
build nests of
two thousand feathers

they are
of fairy tales

*

Hirundinidae

living
not too near the poles
with their scimitar wings

*

White-eyes
unspectacularly pretty
with brush-tipped tongues

*

waxbills
sleep like old men
on the verandah

*

Zoologist
cynosure
glutton


you take the mounted specimens

bar-throated minla
red-footed falcon


and then all the names

even
figbird
paradise riflebird
woodlark
skylark


then the clades and all
all of biology


though we begin with biology
and we continue biologically
to be biological
organisms performing our biologically
mandated & culturally modified
behaviors


*

White-winged Choughs
kidnap fledglings
to act as au pairs or slaves

*

shrikes
impale their prey
on barbed wire

their food wind-dried like jerky

*

fantail flycatchers

like the European Robins
their love is of the cupboard variety

*

the Brown-headed Cowbird
lays eggs

Bell’s Vireo responds by burying
the cowbird’s eggs
smothering them

*

compare the drum-
ming of the male snipe

*

swift
the supreme hawker of insects

hummingbird
the perfect nectar-sipper

*

the Huia
last seen in 1907
the beauty of its feathers
fatal

*

in the Arabian peninsula
brilliant songs

the duetting gonoleks

*

that completes
the modern birds

*

There is nothing in your love of birds
beyond a love of birds

 
 

Author Acknowledgments: The language in the non-italicized sections belongs not to me but to Colin Tudge. The text is drawn from chapter 4 (“All the Birds in the World: An Annotated Cast List”) of The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live (© 2008 Colin Tudge), published by Three Rivers Press, New York, New York.