I killed a bird this morning. I really had no choice, but I felt terrible about it and I still do.
I was sitting in my office, much earlier than usual. The cat was lying on her cushioned perch looking out the window. Suddenly there was a loud thud that made both of us jump, and I knew immediately that a bird had flown into the window. It happens occasionally, and usually when I look out the bird has already flown away, or, more rarely, is lying there dead. Every now and then I’ll see a bird sitting on the porch, looking a bit dazed, and then it’ll fly away, to my great relief.
But today the bird was lying on its side, beating its wing and panting, its small chest rising and falling quickly. I hoped that it would right itself, and it did in another minute, and sat on the pavement the way it would in a nest. But its beak was open and I saw a small bit of blood at its corner. One wing poked out helplessly while the other was folded under it. It continued to pant rapidly, as though panicked.
I thought of Robinson Jeffers’ wonderful poem, “Hurt Hawks,” long one of my favorites, and the lines “No more to use the sky forever but live with famine/And pain a few days…” I knew then what I would have to do.
My wife joined me, but as we watched the bird for some time, nothing changed, and I said that I thought I would have to end it, put it out of its pain and terror. She asked me not to, but realized too that it had to be done, though she couldn’t bear to watch.
Then I wondered about how to do it. I couldn’t cut it or crush it. That was too immediate, too tactile. But then I remembered my son’s old .BB gun that was still in the house. After the first shot, the bird began its death spasms, and the second stilled it. It was out of pain. It no longer felt that fear of something it had no chance of understanding. I thought of a line from the poem again, “I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.”
And when I picked up the bird, a young one, its coloring still speckled, it was like Jeffers’ dead hawk, “relaxed, owl-downy, soft feminine feathers…” But nothing soared up, no spirit of the doomed, unlucky bird. I had stopped the agony, but I hadn’t freed anything. On the contrary, I had ended it.
And though the first blow, the truly killing one, hadn’t been mine, I couldn’t help but think that when we kill something we take from it everything — all that it ever was and all that it ever might be. I’ll never hear that bird sing, never see it splashing its wings as it cools itself in the birdbath. When we kill, these can be the things we kill, music, beauty, joy.
We should never forget that, whether we kill to put meat on our table, to enforce our own beliefs, for retribution, or simply because we can without impunity. Killing is killing, ending that other life forever, every chance, every opportunity, every possible future.