As a young child, we had a bird feeder outside our kitchen window. It was the 1950s, and the clever marketing folks up in Battle Creek, Michigan, at Kelloggs, were busy pushing a puffed corn, sugar-saturated cereal to us kids at the leading edge of the baby boom generation. Never mind details like health and nutrition; cereal executives were driven by market share. In those days, nothing could sway the economic bottom line better than cowboys and Indians. Jingles, the 300-pound sidekick in the T.V. Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok was there to remind us, “Sugar Pops are tops. “
These were the golden years, we loved Jingles and Wild Bill and, as with so many things, in sweet we trusted. Each morning, just after sunrise, I would take my seat at the breakfast table for my regular Sugar Pops fix. Birds and I shared a similar breakfast routine and, outside the window, a steady stream of avian visitors came and went. With the encouragement of my parents, I soon learned to identify all the regulars by sight and sound – cardinals, mockers, jays, brown thrashers, flickers, grackles and nuthatches. Years later, I came to appreciate that teaching me bird names at a young age was not necessarily a parental ulterior motive. Instilling a sense of wonder about the natural world, was. They knew that those kinds of lessons stick like tar.
On reflection, watching birds over a bowl of cereal was an early example that life’s most lasting gifts and remembrances are usually those which cannot be bought for money. Of course, such innocent exposures can spark powerful magnetic forces which pull us in unpredictable directions. Parental tweaking of childhood imagination, to encourage images of the world through the eyes of a Red-Tailed Hawk, may spawn youthful dreams made to fly, to go fast, to dive and soar. Who knows, perhaps, it was bird watching under the influence of sugar that eventually led to flying jet fighters off aircraft carriers. My mother had an innate fear of airplanes and flying and, had that possibility crossed her mind, she would have instructed my father to remove the bird feeder immediately. It was the 1950s, after all. So while she constantly worried about the dangers that speed and gravity came to pose for my longevity, I was busy discovering that in virtually every dimension of earthly flight, there is no man-made, supersonic, zillion dollar, engineering marvel of aluminum and titanium as aerodynamically perfect as even the common park pigeon.
On March 23rd, Tree Swallows returned to Sandy Mush from wintering in Central America. It is an exciting annual ritual. The tail chases in aerobatic pursuit of insects and nesting gyrations have officially begun. These maneuverings are reminders of my own youthful aerial adventures and allow me to momentarily pretend that I once could once do what they do — that I was good then as they are now. Deep down, I know better. It is not Man, but Nature, that has, in mere ounces of flesh and feathers, mastered critical performance parameters like thrust-to-weight ratio, wing loading, “G” tolerance, turn radius, precise navigation and stealth. Armed with this knowledge it is possible to imagine a few squadrons of loyal, missile-equipped kestrels, swifts or owls ably defending freedom at a fraction of the cost of current aviation technology, saving huge chunks of the defense budget for other important priorities. In a more amusing vein, hunters should remain forever grateful that neither doves nor ducks are able to shoot back. Sport hunting would be redefined. So go mind wanderings in a world of imagination nurtured by long ago lessons from the bird feeder — still stuck on me like tar.