The Applause of Birds

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The day began well before dawn in snowy, sub-zero Anchorage. There were northern lights in the sky as I began the long flight over the unending Pacific horizon. The monotonous blue broke only once all day – during a short, but viciously hot midday stop at Wake Island. Too many hours later, I arrived over the beautiful coral reefs and clear water of Midway Island. Omnipotent Dad – who’d been there as a submariner during WWII – always described the place as a bomb-pocked hunk of rock jutting up from the sea. He’d told me many times about Navy ships inbound from the US hauling in loads of dirt in an attempt to green the place up. Apparently the effort worked, because the Midway I saw below was a lush place with the big green lawns and thousands of coconut palms common to most tropical military bases.

Dad also told me stories about the gooney birds – the huge and comical albatrosses that crowd the island. My image of them was mostly based on National Geographic pictures and tales of sailors taking a break from the nasty business of war to feed ice cream to the chicks.

Meet the Goonies

As we taxied to our parking spot, I was amazed that hundreds of the birds lined the runways and taxiways. None of them seemed the least interested in the giant metal bird screaming a few feet away. Off in the distance I could see one or two using the runway for their own takeoffs. They gullomped down the runway flapping their impossibly long wings and bumping their asses on the concrete. After seemingly running for miles, they slowly lifted and struggled for altitude like an overloaded airplane. Once in the sky, their clumsiness fell away and they soared in effortless beauty over the sea. Their flight was so economical. It put man’s feeble confection of being the master of the skies to shame. They flew for hours on the island thermals, adjusting their flights with only the subtle movements of their tails.

When we shut down our banshee-screaming engines, it became so quiet. The air held nothing except the gentle ticking of the cooling engines, the hush of the far-off surf, and muted voices from the crew as we unpacked. The wind picked up slightly and the solid thock of a coconut falling onto the concrete reminded us we were in the tropics.

After checking in, a sailor from the naval facility ferried us to our quarters in an ancient Jeep. If I’d been impressed by the number of goonies around the airport, I was totally unprepared for what I saw on the streets. It was mating season and every inch of the island – lawns, driveways, picnic tables, cars, even the road itself – was choked with birds. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds writ huge. There were so many birds that we could drive no faster than 5 mph. Our sailor navigated around eggs laid on the bare ground and straddled birds that refused to make way for the Jeep.

Mom, Dad, and the Chicks

Some of the nesting couples had already hatched their huge eggs and jealously guarded their chicks and ridiculously small patch of ground. It seemed the only thing that ruffled their feathers was another bird or a human getting too close. They squawked loudly and bobbed heads at intruders. If you drew too close, they’d snip in your direction with a pronounced clap of their hooked bills. I’m sure they could do real damage if they managed to connect with flesh.

The chicks couldn’t be more different than their parents. Instead of strikingly white, three foot tall birds, the chicks were cantaloupe-sized balls of furry brown fuzz. Lost in the tangle were two beady, glistening eyes and the tiniest of beaks. They looked like fobs on the end of a teenage girl’s key chain. Although the parents made poor nest builders – bare ground was fine with them – they made very attentive keepers of their small broods. Periodically, one of the adults would make the long takeoff run and return later with a mouthful of regurgitated fish. It seemed as though the parents might swallow the chicks whole as their kids fed directly from Mom’s beak. But they were happy families, the parents periodically stopping to do their silly dipping, flapping love dance culminating in an orgy of claps from their massive beaks.

The Applause of Birds

Our quarters were in an old house, previously used by a navy family. We removed the plywood from the windows and the protective plastic from the mattresses and settled in. We watched the sun go down in a dazzling display from the back porch. When it grew dark, we all moved inside for sleep. As I lay down I felt the cool island breeze tickle the hairs of my body. I could feel a slight sheen of sweat evaporating in the breeze. My eyes grew heavy and as I began to drift off I could hear only one thing – the quiet applause of a million goonies doing their dance and clapping their bills of love. My last thought before I slipped below the waves of sleep was that avian applause seemed like a very fitting end to the day.

Clap, clap, clap.

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