A life aloft

An ode to airport-dwelling birds.


Fiddle feet. Wanderlust. It’s something that most of us have, if we were lucky enough to grow up in the era of American Prosperity. 

We leave the nest. 

We travel far from home to go to school or take a job. Or just to travel for the sake of travel, on a lark, if we have a few pennies to rub together. Just because the great wide world is there.

I grew up road-tripping in the backseat of a VW bug, and puddle-jumping from Louisiana to Texas to Alabama visiting relatives during school breaks.

As my family’s center of gravity moved West, our bayou nest frayed, and I developed a new migration pattern that spins out like a spiral from Phoenix, Arizona. I’d lift off to the Great Plains, or take wing and chase work and adventure in Western locales like Boulder, Sea-Tac, Portland, Reno and Jenner-by-the-Sea. Occasionally, I traipse off to distant glaciers — the Alps, Iceland — but more often than not, my window seat looks out upon the sharp-relief vistas of the arid West.

Along the way, I’ve come to love Phoenix’s Sky Harbor, my home airport, even though I deplore its crowds and noise and cramped quarters. For me, air travel is one long opportunity to practice mindfulness. 

But in Phoenix, there’s one sweet note of relief: Birds roost in some concourses of the airport. They fly in through the jetways, which open just long enough for them to zoom in. I think they’re sparrows, but there are few people worse at identifying birds than I am. Let’s just agree to call them “birds.” They fly between the ledges of the enormous picture windows, and have interloped at Sky Harbor for so many years now that the concourse staff have installed birdhouses.

Birds, including sparrows, frequently find their way inside airport terminals, flitting among travelers.
Ron Dowdell

They don’t seem to mind our frenzy, our leave-takings and homecomings, our worries or our anticipation. 

Occasionally, they startle travelers by zipping between their ersatz nests to the floor, where they’ve spotted a feast. They glean. They hop. They clean up after us, separating our edible droppings from the bags and cups strewn on the floor. When the job is done, they jet off again. 

They keep up a running commentary on life, hunger, and the banishment of hunger. People don’t always notice their chatter, though, perhaps thinking it part of a soundtrack –– or maybe they are just too preoccupied with phone calls or computer games to pay attention. Perhaps it’s a good thing that most people also don’t see the grayish-white guano covering the ceiling beams or the metal sculptures over a water fountain. (The maintenance staff always pay special attention to that water fountain. Good job.)

I once asked a pilot on his way to catch a flight — well, I guess he would have been on his way to “fly” a flight — if he thought the birds were jealous of the planes. He laughed and said he thought they were just trying to get out. 

But he was wrong about that, said Liz, a friendly gate agent in Concourse D. She told me that the birds get shooed out of Sky Harbor every now and then by the maintenance staff, but that they always sneak back in. She feels sorry for them, and so she puts out water dishes. Liz also says they love popcorn. 

I got the feeling that Liz really likes having them around. Whatever the correct attitude is about feeding this population (which probably depends on whether you see them as pests, pets, accidents of ecology or mere novelties), I found Liz’s attention and concern endearing. In the short time I spent in Liz’s orbit, she fielded hundreds of questions and placated dozens of angry travelers. Maybe a few moments of watching or listening to the birds is, for her, a relief. 

For a while, during my unsettled 30s, I experienced a physical terror of flying that couldn’t be explained by my own experience. I’d never been in an accident on a plane; there had been no recent news reports of planes dropping out of the sky. During that jittery time in my life, the only thing that calmed me while flying was to imagine that my plane was overtaken by a real bird, one with sleek feathers and keen, kohl-black eyes. Cheesy, yes. But it worked, perhaps because I trust feathers and blood and birdsong — wherever they may be.

Renée Guillory hails from the Sonoran Desert. Forthcoming works include essays on the restoration of Fossil Creek, near Strawberry, Arizona.  Follow her at www.therenaissancewriter.com or on Twitter:

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