It’s fair to say that most people who travel to Buenos Aires do not come to see birds. They come for the food, the tango, the Teatro Colon, and the amazing architecture. And if they are looking for birds they are probably stopping on their way to visiting somewhere else in the region.
Yet there are amazing birds to be seen within city limits.
And you might not find the best place to see them mentioned in most guidebooks. That’s because the place you’ll want to go didn’t exist until 1986. And if you do read about it you might also read that it’s a place for tourists to avoid for safety reasons.
But having spent a number of mornings and afternoons there, I can report that I never felt in danger — and I was lugging around a very large camera. The park was busy with joggers and kids on school trips. I even passed a large group of police cadets in training one morning.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t be heads-up — but that goes for any part of the city.
More than a hundred species of birds have been spotted in the area. In just a few days of walking around I spotted more than 25, including this turkey-sized bird known as a Chajá (or, in English, Southern Screamer):
Being from the Midwest and now living in the West, I miss seeing cardinals. So I was thrilled to come across this red-crested cardinal:
I was surprised to learn that this species is not actually related to the cardinals I grew up with; it’s part of the tanager family.
I also sighted a curious Great Kiskadee:
And if you want to see parrots, you’re almost guaranteed to see a species or two, like this monk parakeet:
And don’t forget to look down once in a while, or you might miss the many turtles and iguanas:
If you can make time to visit this reserve when in Buenos Aires, I highly recommend it (note that it’s closed on Mondays).
Most important, it is possible to go naturing and birding in Buenos Aires, so don’t miss this abundance of flora and fauna in the city, even if you’re on your way somewhere else.
There are six kinds of quetzals in the cloud forests of Central America, and while they are all attractive birds, just one species is known as “resplendent.” Imagine being such a stunning specimen that you are classified in terms of your matchless beauty.
Definitions of resplendent include: “shining brilliantly,” “richly colorful,” “dazzling in appearance.” So why aren’t peacocks deemed resplendent, or butterflies, or poison dart frogs? What makes the quetzal so special?
This bird sports sumptuous colors, to be sure. Scarlet body, golden beak, emerald head and back, streaks of azure running down the tail feathers. The male has a wondrously long tail that floats behind him as he flies through the rain forest canopy. His head is crested and his eyes are large and glistening.
To see this legendary bird in flight must be transformative. You might think you imagined the vision, and you might be right: The quetzal is endangered, as are many exquisite things on this planet, our admiration for them causing more harm than good.
In Guatemala, the quetzal is the national symbol; even the currency is called the quetzal. The word is taken from the Aztec word ‘quetzalli,’ meaning precious or beautiful. Mayans worshipped the creature and used its tail feathers in their headdresses. While killing a quetzal was punishable by death, one could trap it, pluck its feathers and let it go. Over time the feathers grow back, but meanwhile, how does the damaged male charm a female? How does it soar through the jungle with only the memory of its glorious tail? The Mayans can be credited with many things—humanity is not one of them.
Quetzals mate for life. Solitary and quiet most of the year, they come together only in the springtime. Their nests are confined to dead or dying trees, where they use a hole made by a previous tenant or peck out one themselves. For eighteen days the parents take turns sitting on the two blue eggs, and though both care for the chicks afterward, the female departs early. In just three weeks, the young can fly. They eat a range of food, from insects to small frogs to certain fruits, particularly miniature avocadoes, which they swallow whole, spitting out the seeds.
Deforestation is limiting the quetzals’ nesting options; this and poaching are the biggest reasons for the decline of the species. Poaching is illegal, but the laws are ignored or unenforced. The birds are captured for their feathers or for display in private museums.
As these birds do not mate in captivity—most die after being caught—protecting their forests is the only means of saving them, and there are two areas in Guatemala where efforts are underway. We have put ourselves in a terrifying position, having created a world in which wild things must depend on us for their survival.
The resplendent quetzal cautions us with its name. There is no replacement, nothing quite so wonderful. Saving this bird is our only hope.
An interview with Among Animals contributor Ray Keifetz (“Miriam’s Lantern”)
Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: “Miriam’s Lantern” began as a series of prose poems called “Last Things.” I spent a melancholy night enumerating extinctions—creatures, cultures, trees, languages … “Where to begin?” was my epigram; it could have as easily been “There’s no end.”The poems that burned most brightly were a meditation on the last passenger pigeon, which died in captivity, and an encounter I’d had as a boy with a very old man who’d apprenticed as a blacksmith before horses had been replaced by cars. And almost immediately I sensed there was a story and that story was the connection, somehow, between that bird and that man. Both were on display. The habitats of both had been destroyed. The bird, however, had been hunted to extinction by men. A year later it came to me what if . . .? What if the man had killed the bird, one of the last? Instantly I had the bones of a story. The historic events were there in one lifetime—the introduction of the automobile, the chestnut blight, the killing of the last wild passenger pigeon in 1900, the death of the very last in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. All that remained, which took years, was for me to develop the two main characters—my almost-a-journeyman blacksmith and my small bluish bird with eyes the color of flame.
Q: What was your writing/research process?
A: Apart from verifying a few dates to see whether my time frame was plausible, I did no actual research; I never do—I would hate to let a fact get in the way of a good story. The subject matter, the details of “Miriam’s Lantern,” grew out of my reading, my interest in history, in animals, and my travels. My writing is a weaving of what I know with what I don’t know (which is where, I think, fiction begins), of what I remember with what I don’t remember (the place where poetry begins for me). For example, the town of Praywell in the story is based on the restored, early nineteenth century town of Hopewell, which I stumbled upon by accident. It was there that I met the blacksmith who told me how he forged by the colors of fire and held me like Coleridge’s mesmerized wedding guest for hours. The strange urgency, the need out of which he spoke has stayed with me ever since and shaped my story as much as the fire shaped his iron. If I was the wedding guest, the blacksmith was the mariner, and so I named the narrator of “Miriam’s Lantern” Marner. For me the concrete, the “actual” are the places I leave behind. I doubt if I could find Hopewell again, but the road to Praywell is marked by numerous well lit signs.
Q: By juxtaposing the extinction of a human profession with the extinction of an animal, you create a story feels both futuristic and historical at the same time—how did you work toward finding the right balance?
A: To achieve the balance you mention, the narrator’s voice was everything. I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote “Miriam’s Lantern,” groping for just the right tone. While the events clearly occur in the past, it is Marner’s diction—formal, quaint, at times stilted, at times almost Biblical—that takes us into the future as if hearing a prophesy. Marner describes actual events, but he does so employing archetypes. His blighted forest could be our forest, the growing darkness as forge after forge flickers out our own growing darkness. But while the story is set in the past, the open-ended ending allows us, if we will, to follow Marner with his bagful of bright red berries into a future where those berries, against the odds, may yet be received.
Q: In “Miriam’s Lantern,” Marner is undergoing an apprenticeship—in what ways do you feel this reflects our relationship with animals and the natural world?
A: From the moment he kills the small, round bird, Marner’s apprenticeship assumes a wider, darker compass than what is normally required by blacksmithing. For much of the story he wanders through a dying world like a stranger, vainly trying to resume an apprenticeship no longer possible. Miriam offers him an alternative vision—a world where the pursuit of craft is still possible and points as evidence to the lives of animals, an association Marner resists. Ironically it is his estrangement from the natural world that lands him a job “among animals.” For the second time in his life he stares into the eyes of the bird that has both haunted him and informed his apprenticeship, but this time he sees another creature “unrelated but closely connected . . .” inhabiting “separate but closely related cages . . .”—the two of them prisoners, the existence of the bird as dependent on Marner as his existence is dependent on the bird. It is the small, solitary bird that in the end saves Marner, and it is now up to Marner as he returns to the natural world outside the zoo to repay the debt. That is his apprenticeship, and, I believe, ours as well.
An interview with Among Animals contributor Julian Hoffman (“Pelicans”)
Q: What inspired you to write “Pelicans”?
A: I wanted to express something of this place that I’d moved to—the Prespa Lakes—but still wasn’t ready to explore through nonfiction. The pelicans had a magnetic effect on me from the day we arrived. While swimming in the lake or walking along the shore they would glide overhead in that ancient way of theirs, an aerial relic of the deep past brought beautifully into the light of the present. I’m always entranced by that near presence of the ancient, that span of time enclosed in a moment. They seemed a direct connection to another age, something so old and resilient that it marked me deeply each time they came close. And yet I was also aware that conflict existed between pelicans and people in this part of the world. Fortunately for the rare colonies of both Dalmatian and white pelicans in Prespa, that conflict is no longer an issue—though it had been decades earlier when there was a bounty on the birds’ heads—but every year, in other parts of Greece and southeast Europe, there are a few stories of pelicans being shot in the belief that they are competing with humans for the same species, despite studies showing that 95 percent of the pelicans’ diet is made up of small fish species with little commercial significance or interest for fishermen.
Q: In this story, birds go from foe to friend for the storyteller—in what ways do you think this reflects humans’ relationships with animals?
A: I’m not sure the pelicans go exactly from foe to friend in the eyes of the fisherman, but rather he moves into a relationship of respect. He sees them in a new and unexpected light—connected to the same place, and bound by similar ties of loyalty and lineage. And I think that’s profoundly important, in a wider sense, for our affiliation with animals. Certain moments and encounters with the wild can bring about change, particularly at a time when we’re witnessing an unparalleled rate of animal extinctions. These losses, this irreversible movement towards absence diminishes us in a world that is sentient and shared beyond measure.
Our relationships with animals are actually deeply complex, composed of wonder, fear, anger, joy, friendship, reliance, appreciation, admiration, awe, hatred and love, and yet so often we retreat as a culture to the simple opposition of us and them, negating all the richness and possibility in between. There’s a section in Henry Beston’s book The Outermost House, which still sounds prophetically progressive today, even though it was published in 1928: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animals shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the Earth.”
Q: The rescue story in “Pelicans” is a story within a story; why did you choose this point of view rather than one closer to the tale the fisherman reveals?
A: I had a feeling that this was a story that could only be shared between strangers, rather than friends, and I wanted to turn the narrative around just enough so that both the fisherman and the biologist were in the same frame. Just as the fisherman comes to see the pelicans in a new light, so the biologist comes to regard the fisherman differently than he’d imagined him. The narrator’s experience tells him to expect a certain story in these situations, especially after the man describes the killing of pelicans and smashing of the nests. But expectation can sometimes seal us from insight. I wanted the story to be a revelation for both men.
Myrsini Malakou, who has worked for many years on behalf of pelicans as the director of the Society for the Protection of Prespa, once told me, “There are borders of interest and activity—the fisherman, the farmer, the environmentalist. But where there are borders, there are bridges.” I think it’s important to be open to the unexpected at all times; to those sudden, arising connections that can become bridges.
Q: What role does the natural world play in your life as a writer?
A: The natural world is very much the heart of my writing life. Even when I’m not writing specifically about it, it’s there in the glimmer of light through the window, the dusk song of the nightingale that seeps into the words. And yet I was late in coming to the natural world. Or rather I was late in returning to it. I had one of those childhoods that we took for granted back then; my brother and I, and our friends, were allowed to muck about for whole days in scrubby lots and river ditches, playing baseball in abandoned, suburban fields. We were surrounded by a promise that I wouldn’t have put a name to back then, but I now see was about engaging with the natural world as part of our daily play and adventures, an ordinary, but beautiful, affair. Although I forgot about the natural world for some years while I was at university and then exploring cities, those initial experiences have called me back again. They bring a richness to my life that I couldn’t imagine being without. As a friend of mine says, once you become aware of a particular bird’s song, you can never be unaware of it again.
Q: Was there a specific experience that sparked this story?
A: “Pelicans” was a turning point for me, a catharsis. One of the things I’d wanted to do when my wife and I left London to move to a village by the Prespa Lakes was find a way of committing to writing in this new place, something that I hadn’t managed to do until then. Instead we became organic smallholders for five years, which left me with even less time for writing than I’d had while living and working in London! Working the land by hand, though, taught me a great deal about the place, and deepened my love of its mingled communities of people and wild creatures.
But it was tough work, as well. And one day my back simply gave up, slipped discs sending excruciating pain down my legs until finally I was hospitalized. On that first evening in the ward, just as my wife was about to set off on the long drive over the mountains back to our village, I asked her if she would go downstairs to the shop and buy a cheap notepad and pen. I suddenly understood that my body was telling me something. That for all my love of working the land and raising vegetables from seed, being a farmer wasn’t the thing that I’d always longed to do. That night, in bed beneath the bright lights of the hospital room, I wrote the opening scenes of the story, and it felt like the pelicans were leading me home.
PBS’s documentary Parrot Confidential is a must-see for all bird lovers — and especially for those who may be thinking of a parrot as a pet. The film takes a close look at these amazing birds and shows why they should remain wild instead of in cages. (For a sneak preview, watch the trailer.)
We’ve taken a keen interest in parrots lately in part due to Gwyn Hyman Rubio’s stunning new novel LOVE AND ORDINARY CREATURES (forthcoming this fall), which is about a cockatoo named Caruso who is very much in love with his human caretaker, Clarissa, and also very jealous of the new man in Clarissa’s life. Snatched from the wild as a chick, Caruso is one of the most endearing fictional characters we’ve ever met — and Gwyn’s meticulously researched novel beautifully portrays all of the issues surrounding parrots in captivity.
Parrot Confidential is a fascinating and eye-opening film documenting how parrots are hardwired for the wild — yet an estimated 10-40 million live in captivity in the United States. Because they make such challenging pets, thousands are surrendered to sanctuaries each year. But what happens to the others?
We meet several of them in Parrot Confidential.
We meet Lou, a cockatoo who was left alone in a cage in a foreclosed home in Massachusetts. Lou was discovered after four days in an empty house, when a neighbor called animal control; Lou had a little water left but no food. The animal control officer described Lou’s situation as “utter heartbreak.” Lou is now home in a sanctuary with Foster Parrots.
We also meet Fagan, who was in a such a stressful home that he arrived at the Feathered Friends of Michigan sanctuary with most of his feathers plucked out and a big belly wound from self-mutilation. He was physically addicted to nicotine from living with smokers.
Most people have no idea what it means to care for a parrot. Parrots live up to 80 years and have never been domesticated. Their voices, meant to reach across forests, are too loud for the average home. Without the chance to have a mate, parrots bond strongly with their owners, usually one member of the household, and upon reaching sexual maturity can behave aggressively toward others. Parrots are seldom alone in the wild — even in flight, their mates are nearby — and the solitude of being a single bird in a cage is very stressful.
In 1992, the U.S. banned importation of wild birds — but people still capture and breed them here; there are no regulations. The message of this documentary, which features many former parrot breeders and buyers who now give them sanctuary, is loud and clear: Do not buy birds as pets.
Captive birds lead a horrible and unnatural life — humans clip their wings, put them in cages, and don’t allow these social birds to be with others of their species. Worse, parrots raised in captivity can’t be released in the wild. They have nothing but sanctuaries, most of which are all full.
Marc Johnson of Foster Parrots sums it up best. He often gets asked such questions as what the right-sized cage for a macaw is. His reply: “There is no right-sized cage for a macaw. It’s 35 square miles. It’s the sky.”