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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bird Watch 9/11

Air Date: Week of

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Commentator Brent Runyon explains how watching the interaction between birds helped explain what happened on September 11th.


RUNYON: On the afternoon of September 11th I took a break from the TV and walked to the edge of the little pond I live on on Cape Cod.

TOOMEY: Brent Runyon is a writer who lives in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

RUNYON: All day I'd been hearing fighter jets taking off from the air force base nearby, and at the shoreline, I saw a pair of them streak across the horizon. The jets moved so fast that the roar of their engines didn't reach me until they were almost out of sight. And as the sound faded, I noticed a bunch of birds circling overhead. There was a single large bird, a hawk, I thought, and a bunch of smaller, non-hawk birds, circling and squawking around it. Okay, I'm not exactly a world-class ornithologist. I imagined that the hawk had attacked one of the non-hawks and the non-hawks had come together to chase the big guy away. And that's exactly what they did, after a fifteen minute battle in the sky.

I thought, God, that's perfect. That's a perfect metaphor. Those little birds going after the big one, man, that's just like us and those jets going after the terrorists. I thought about that for a few minutes, about how perfect it was, and then I changed my mind and decided that we weren't the little birds, we were the hawk. I thought, that hawk is on the run right now, but you'd better believe that hawk is coming back, and he's going to get those pesky little non-hawks. I switch back and forth for a while, trying to figure out who was who and what was going to happen, and then went back inside to watch more TV.

A few weeks later, a friend told me a story which helped clear this whole thing up. Every morning, she walks her son to school and watches from the hallway as the teacher leans over and "smells" each one of the children. She assumed the smelling ritual was just another of the many weird New Age things that goes on at her son's school. Well, when she asked her son about it, he said that the ritual had nothing to do with smelling. That every morning, the teacher leans down and whispers in one kid's ear, "You're a hawk." And to the rest he whispers, "You're a pigeon." In the afternoon, they play a game in which all the children sit in a circle and stare at each other. The pigeons try to figure out who among them is the hawk, while the hawk surreptitiously winks at the pigeons, killing them off, one by one.

And that's what got me thinking again about that September day at the pond. I think that it's hard to figure out who's who. Sometimes we're hawks, sometimes we're pigeons, and sometimes we're an angry swarm of non-hawks. And that whatever we think we are, everything can change, in a moment.

TOOMEY: Brent Runyon is a writer, and fledgling birdwatcher, who lives in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.



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