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Great Escape: Bird Flies the Coop

by on May 25, 2016 6:00 AM

A sparrow slips through a gap in a screen and finds himself in a roach motel situation: Having checked into my porch, he can’t check back out.

To understand his situation, try to picture my screen porch. It’s an asymmetrical pentagon. One side is the back wall of the house with the door between inside and outside.

Three of the four remaining sides consist of 14 sections of screening separated by 2-by-4s. The fourth side has two more sections of screening and, jutting out at a 90-degree angle from the house, a screen door that opens into the backyard.

To a sparrow on the wrong side of all that mesh, the screen porch has become a very large cage. My obvious move as the keeper of the cage is to prop open the screen door and retreat into the house to observe.

The bird is impressively systematic. Starting at the 11th section of screening, he flits to the 10th, the 9th, the 8th, all the way around to the 3rd, grabbing onto each section of screen with his little talons as he makes his way toward the open door.

“That’s right,” I mutter. “Two more and you’re out.”

The sparrow’s search for a way out totally accords with a recent New York Times review of two books about animal intelligence. The titles say it all: “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” by Franz de Waal, and “The Genius of Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman.

Among birds’ many talents, according to Ackerman: wayfinding. So much for the birdbrain stereotype.

But then, inexplicably, my clever explorer reverses field and goes back to section 11.

I feel like a baseball fan who’s just watched a long drive hook foul at the last second. “Ooh,” I say, “so close.”

I exhort him to try again. He does so, again turning tail just short of his goal.

While this inside-the-porch drama unfolds, another sparrow, mate of the inmate, perhaps, begins hooking her talons onto the outside of the screen, and offering exhortations of her own. She seems maddened by the so-near-yet-so-far paradox of being on opposite sides of a nearly invisible barrier.

(A word about pronouns. Novice sparrow sexer that I am, it’s entirely possible that the trapped sparrow is female and the free sparrow, male, or that both are male, or both female, or who knows, maybe one of the them is trans, or…)  

Here, loosely translated from Sparrowese, is what the free sparrow says when she flies off:  “Hang in there. I’m going to get a hacksaw. I’ll be right back. Promise.”

(Where does a sparrow get a hacksaw? From Acme, of course, the mail-order hardware supplier to Wile E. Coyote. Say what you will about the quality of Acme’s merch, but their instantaneous deliveries make Amazon look slow.)

During the free sparrow’s absence, the trapped sparrow hops from table to plant to shelf to floor, as if pondering his next move. It looks like an avian version of pacing.

Eventually, he resumes his semi-circumnavigation of the porch perimeter, retreating each time he nears the open door.

I am sure other members of my household will want to join my vigil, but I don’t want to leave my post lest the sparrow escape in my absence, nor do I want to yell lest I further traumatize the little guy. Then I remember what century this is and whip out my phone: “Bird on screen porch,” I text. “Come see.”

One member of my household is able to join me. I fill her in on our story thus far, the way one would for someone who has missed the opening scenes of a drama.

She does not, I am happy to report, say, “Dad, get a life,” but rather settles in beside me to watch the drama play out.

(If you’re thinking, this Frank guy has way too much free time, well, I am an academic and it is summer. But look at it this way: It turns out I was doing research for this column.)

After watching the sparrow fail to find the door a few more times, my daughter, though just as enthralled as I, is less impressed with the captive’s intelligence. I defend him on the grounds that, from an evolutionary perspective, there is probably little in the experience of Passer domesticus that would prepare a member of the species for an encounter with a screen porch.

While we thus consider the brainpower of our feathered friend, he flies up onto the screen right above the screen door, inches from freedom. We hold our breath.

Again, he backtracks. Then back to the same spot. And then – out! His mate, sans saw, is waiting for him.

An animated discussion ensues between the two humans and the two birds.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," was published this fall by the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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