by Tracilyn Tsarnas

I hate birds.

They make creepy noises: some of them even talk. It sounds crazy, but I think that, somehow, birds know that I don’t like them. Bird intuition or something.

One summer, my crazy nudist roommate and I were having a picnic at this beach in Delaware when two enormous seagulls decided to crash the party. First they just circled in that really scary way that the Discovery Channel always shows sharks doing in their commercial promotions for Shark Week. Around and around and around they flew. After I was only gripping my sanity loosely and with one hand, a seagull swooped down and snatched a potato chip right out of my fingers in a fly-by attack. I know I probably shouldn’t be eating potato chips anyway, and that bird probably did my hips a favor, but still—it was my potato chip that I wanted to eat, sitting on my blanket, on my vacation.

That brave gull started a waterfall effect, and the rest followed suit. I spent most of that beach vacation in the cold New England water where I could duck under the waves if the flying vermin got too close. The crazy nudist roommate was pissed. She claimed that she spent good money on her skimpy bikini (which, to my surprise, she actually wore) and she wanted it to be seen, not covered up by chest-high waves. I blame the birds.

This same crazy nudist roommate once stated that her favorite bird was ham. To be fair, we had been discussing edible birds—turkey, chicken, duck, and the like—when she made this outrageous comment, so I can understand why she looked so confused when I laughed. All of our friends tease her about this pretty relentlessly. She always deflects the attention in the same way. She throws me under the bus with the same statement. “Traci’s favorite bird is a dead bird!” And then everyone starts telling my bird stories.

I don’t know when I started to hate birds, but I know when they started to hate me: I was sixteen, a new driver, impossibly thrilled with the new freedoms that came along with my hand-me-down car. It was blue and shiny from the passenger side view. That’s the side the birds liked to use as a porta-potty. The other door was flat, dull gray, the result of the car accident that put the car down into my price range. That primer-colored door never got pooped on, and I still can’t figure out why. Maybe because  birds are attracted to shiny things, like raccoons or squirrels. Squirrels are oddly attracted to my car too. I think they have a universal squirrel death wish from the way they dive in front of my tires on a daily basis. But the bird encounters are worse.

The first time a bird almost killed me I wasn’t alone in the car. I have a witness. She isn’t exactly a reliable witness, though. Her name is Kristin*. We went to high school together. She lived on my street, so I would cart her around places before I learned she was a liar. Then we stopped being friends. I learned that girls turn on each other in high school. It happens after high school too, but that’s when it’s the worst. Kristin was more two-faced than Harvey Dent. I think she invented, perfected, and patented the gossip mill of my high school.  Somehow, she always came out of every situation looking like everyone’s best friend. Heck, she told everyone that I stuffed my bra (which wasn’t exactly true: padded bras do not count as being stuffed), but I still drove her around for a year in my beloved automobile.

She is pregnant now. Her baby daddy, like me, hates birds. He is 19 and just got fired from McDonalds. You can’t make up details like that.  She thinks he will stick around forever since he is the father. I think he will just sue for custody when he learns that every word outta her mouth has to be verified. I don’t know what that says about my story. She was there and saw the whole thing, I swear.

I don’t remember where we were driving. It was summer, so we couldn’t have been driving to school. Maybe we were going to cheerleading practice. I should’ve known homegirl would end up preggo just because of how perfect a cheerleader she was. Me, I sucked at it. I got too distracted by the game to remember what stupid rhyme I was supposed to be yelling or what pelvic thrusting dance I was supposed to be doing. Not Kristin. She was always doing the right cheer. On the way to practice we used to blast Smashmouth’s “All Star.” So we were yelling along about how this guy wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed when a flying piece of terror shoots right in through the open car window.

Ok, admittedly, it was one of the rear windows. And the bird was just a small boring sparrow. Still terrifying. It would have been just a scary encounter if that dumb bird had just flown in one window and out the other. Stuff never works out that way for me. It was a massively traumatic experience because the stupid bird couldn’t get out. It flew into the windshield and hovered around the steering wheel/ the area usually occupied by my head seeking escape. I actually had to shoo it out the driver’s window with my hand. Ok, maybe “shoo” isn’t the right word. Maybe “slap” fits better. I slapped it, but only with the best of intentions.

That was the first day of the rest of my life.

My mom was a professional story teller when I was little. She belonged to a guild and got paid to tell elaborate lies in the name of entertainment. She used to take me along with her instead of paying a babysitter, so I can probably still recite her stories verbatim. Every single one of them. There was a cutesy retelling of “Cinderella,” a story about an ordinary man named Amos and his extraordinary adventure, and some very carefully constructed tongue-twisters. My favorite story was about a power blackout on a train where a young soldier stole both a kiss and the opportunity to slap his crusty old general. Those were fun ones, but there was one story that really wormed its way into my brain.

It was about this lion, he was the King of the Jungle, but he couldn’t roar loud enough to tell his lady lion that he wanted dinner ready when he got home from the opposite side of the jungle. It wasn’t an enlightened story, obviously. Mind you, this was 15 years ago; she might get jumped by a few militant feminists for this story today. Anyway, the lion was convinced he would expire of starvation before he got dinner unless his wife was given proper notice. So, he roared and roared and wasted all kinds of energy.  When it became clear that he was a massive failure at communication his little birdie friend stepped in.

My mom used to describe this bird as a gorgeous bird of paradise, with brilliant plumage and the voice of an angel. The emerald, yellow-gold, and scarlet feathers would make you weep for joy, according to my mother. This is the only time that I will ever defy my mother in writing (it’s much safer to do that vocally, where it cannot be proven later what you said): I think that bird was probably a lot scarier than she used to tell. I’m pretty sure this bird was a crow or vulture, big and imposing. He would’ve been the kind of bird that would peck the eye from a living creature. He was sly and cunning, not snuggly and huggable, I’m sure.

Anyway, when the lion couldn’t make himself heard from that range, the bird asked if he could try. The lion laughed and told him to have at it. That bird, like all birds in my experience, was tricky. He set up a jungle version of the children’s game Telephone, sending the message along through all his feathered friends until it reached Mrs. King of the Jungle. My mother used to make this story all warm and fuzzy about teamwork and big things coming in small packages and judging books by their covers, etc. I think the real moral of this story is that birds pass the word along.

That stupid sparrow told all his friends all about me and set them all on alert level red. Ever since that day, all birds just have it out for me. And they are not content to just torture me, either. Last spring they made it a family affair and attacked both my uncle and his oversized rat of a dog. In my opinion the little yipper had it coming, but my uncle didn’t deserve what he got. He was innocently spreading new mulch over the landscaping in his front yard when he noticed a few birds in one of the trees at the corner of the house. He just went about his business, dumping wheelbarrows of fragrant mulch in strategic locations so he could spread it all around evenly. He got to the corner by the tree and the family of orioles living there went crazy.

They wouldn’t let him get within three feet of the base of the tree. After several attempts, he gave up, abandoning the wheelbarrow on his front lawn. He finished the rest of the yard and resigned himself to not finishing that corner until later in the summer when the older birds would be less protective of their nest. I think that was very considerate of him. He is a very considerate person. In high school, he lent my older brother his 1969 Chevy Impala for the prom. My brother and his skinny little date were thrilled.

Those terrorist birds weren’t content with claiming just a corner of that poor man’s yard. They sat, for weeks, on the ridgeline of his roof and watched him. It started just in the corner where their tree was housed, but soon escalated. They would move to whatever part of his yard he was in, watching and occasionally swooping past his head to show him who was boss. Still, he refused to fight back.

Then they turned on the dog. My uncle went crazy. Who could blame him? His kids are long grown and gone. The kids are just starting to bring kids of their own around. Without live-in little people to raise, that dog lives like she is family. She has sweaters and rhinestone studded leashes. She rules the roost, if you can pardon the pun. One day, she got too close to the tree which caused a commotion amongst the birds. With all the chirping and jostling going on, one of the newly-hatched babies fell from the nest. That stupid dog promptly snatched it up and started trotting all over the yard with Mama and Papa Bird in hot pursuit. When my uncle looked up from his fence mending and saw his twelve pound dog running around with an oversized oriole riding her and pecking her in the head, he was finally mad. He pulled out the garden hose and sprayed the whole scene liberally. The dog loved it. The birds did not.

But like I said, birds feed and fertilize their own rumor weed.

They passed that story right along and come back for vengeance. We were in Washington, DC for the weekend visiting my friend Rachel for her birthday. She was living there and agreed to show us all the touristy sites on the hottest, muggiest day in August. She carted us around the city, driving and narrating at 150 mph. That’s how it seemed anyway; Rachel talks fast. Actually, she does everything fast. My mom always asks her to repeat herself at half speed or pulls me aside later for translation. “Traci Lou,” she always says, “how do you listen that quickly? I just can’t keep up with that precious little motor-mouth!”

So we walked all over the tourist section of DC while Brittany, the history teacher, informed us in minute detail about the historical significance of pillar, brick, and paving stone we saw. At the Lincoln Memorial, she launched into a detailed and one-sided discussion of the Civil War. “Did you guys know that Lincoln wasn’t actually opposed to slavery?” she asked. “Seriously, he just didn’t want to be the guy in office when the Union fell apart.” At the Washington Memorial, which I think looks like a sharpened pencil, we were treated to more facts: good old George wore wooden dentures and bled to death because his docs were overzealous with the leeches. Awesome.

Desperate for school to be over, we spotted a concession stand. Secretly, I hoped Britt couldn’t eat and lecture at the same time. It was perfect. The concession stand had an awning stretched across the whole front of the miniscule building. We were glad for the quiet and the shade. Apparently, so were the birds.

I have this theory about birds in DC. I think they are an especially integral part of the communication network. Maybe it is because the city is a sort of hub for political and social action. I think they took lessons from the Secret Service. Or the CIA. The birds are well-connected to the information; naturally, they showed up in droves.

I have always hated those restaurants that serve food on outside patios because the giant pigeons that run around under the tables, brushing and bumping up against your legs unless you sit with them tucked up under you. Even when I keep my legs and feet out of the range of these pests, I can’t enjoy my food because all I can think about it the tingling sensation from my lower limbs being asleep. Well, this situation was even worse. At least at those restaurants people don’t try to feed the birds. That common sense practice is apparently lacking in our nation’s capitol.

There, they encourage their small children to do it for entertainment.

To be fair, there was one small Asian girl that I could’ve kissed, and not only because she was adorable. She was also a clever enemy of the birds. She was throwing Fritos on the ground and murmuring in her native tongue to the birds. They were slowly coaxed closer to her crouched figure by her gentle voice and liberal handfuls of the delicious treats. She would sit very still until they were completely surrounding her. Then, she would explode in a flurry of yelling and wild arm gestures. Those birds didn’t even know what to do. They would take off in every direction, and a couple of the less coordinated ones collided in air. I found this very entertaining until Britt dumped a whole bag of crushed Doritos at my feet, and all the airborne birds converged uncomfortably close to me. I screamed and ran. Several days later, I was tagged on Facebook in an especially good action shot of the very moment of my panic. Best friends ever, right?

Britt is the worst. In junior high, where we met, she used to touch her right thumb to the first knuckle of her pointer finger and hold her hand out from her body. A crude letter “P” was formed. She used to make this motion whenever she couldn’t get away with muttering “psycho” and rolling her eyes. It happened a lot, mostly in relation to our often frazzled teachers or catty girls. She made this gesture frequently whenever Kristin was around. They never liked each other. What is it about cultivating team spirit in small skirts that makes girls hate each other so much? This not-so-obscene gesture was revived in high school with the advent of my bird phobia. The new catchword was, creatively, “phobia” (unless it was referring to Kristin; in that case it was always “psycho”).

Some of the encounters happened without any help from my friends.  After my Pop died, my mom and her siblings worried that my Nana would be lonely living all alone. They shelled out several hundred dollars for a used bird. Polly already knew several phrases when she came to live with my Nana, but I don’t remember them anymore. I think I blocked the most traumatic things about Polly, so my most vivid memory of her was riding in the back of my mom’s Bonneville with the cage the day we bought her.  I wanted to pet her, but she kept trying to bite me, so I gave up. I avoided Polly after that. The only person who hated Polly more than I did was my Nana, so Polly didn’t last very long. Maybe six months before Polly “went to live on a farm” like all of our other pets did over the years.

Polly made me afraid of all other African Grays, so one time at the zoo Britt spent fifteen minutes insisting I needed to stand inside a bird enclosure until I could work out my differences with the “pretty birdie.”

Let me milk that- To. Work. Out. My. Differences. With. A. Talking. Bird.

My friends team up with the flying vermin pretty often, but that’s not to say that I haven’t gotten in a few good knocks of my own. This year’s southerly migration was, for once, a positive, if not drawn-out, experience. Not only was I able to watch giant flocks of birds flying somewhere that’s not my hometown for the winter, but all my close encounters ended in points for me.

During the fall, I was driving home from work when a bald eagle tried to kill me. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t a bald eagle, but it was, as my friend Anneliese likes to say, “large and in charge.” Usually when I tell this story, it’s a bald eagle for effect- most other people just aren’t properly afraid of black birds the size of my head.  On this day, I had all the windows open because it was beautiful out. It was one of those fall days where you can breathe in the colors of the leaves. I may or may not have been blasting the Pocahontas soundtrack as I drove.

I first spotted the perp when he was flying parallel with my car. I thought to myself, “Wow, I do not like that large bird flying next to my car.” Just as I was thinking this unlucky thought, my turn came up. As I was executing a perfect right-hand turn, I realized that this put me on a perfect perpendicular line to the bird’s trajectory (for those who escaped being math nerds, perpendicular is when two lines cross at a perfect 90 degree angle). For the two seconds it took my mind to process this, that bird was headed for my open window.

I did what every logical person does in that moment: I stood on the brake pedal with both feet. My coffee splashed all over the dashboard, leaving steaming puddles everywhere. I was kind of upset over the spilled coffee; I had gone out of my way to stop at the only gas station in town that sold bananas foster instant cappuccino, which is my all-time favorite. Turns out, the coffee spill was nothing compared to the commotion behind me.

Naturally, since I had screeched to a stop in the middle of a busy intersection, all the cars veered around me, shooting red hot looks and gestures. Gestures I am too much of a lady to describe here. I smiled and waved triumphantly. They were pissed, and I didn’t even care. Why? I watched that stupid bird skid all the way across my windshield and get drilled by the wipers, that’s why.  One point for me.

*Names have been changed so people don’t get pissed at me when they read things they don’t like to hear about themselves.

Bio: Tracilyn Tsarnas completed her BA in Professional Writing and Editing from Youngstown State University. She now lives in San Diego where she continues to have traumatic bird encounters all year round.

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