Scout is the third dog that I have had in my adult life; thereby, I am on my 24th year of having a ready-made reason to get outside every morning. We go to the large park at the corner of my block most days. When it is below zero, my fellow dog owners and I bitch and moan and compare the relative warmth of our boots. When it is well above 90, we bitch and moan and say that we really must be getting home, pretending that it is our dogs who can’t stand the heat.
Scout is a meanderer. I call her the Ferdinand of dogs, as in the children’s book where the ferocious-seeming bull wants nothing more than to sit in the field, and smell the flowers. Scout wanders the park each morning, slowly, thoroughly, nose to the ground, not willing to miss one single thing that might be infinitesimally different from the day before.
Each spring, we experience an alarming wave of birds’ nests falling from their tree homes, or perhaps they have been helped along by squirrels, cats, raccoons, possums – any of the variety of wildlife we have. Each year, for a time, our parks, yards, sidewalks are littered with tiny, dead baby birds. Some are brand newly hatched from their shells, others are feathered and nearly fledged, one hair’s breath away from spreading their wings and living a life.
Considering that we have experienced an influx of fox and coyote – surprising considering that we live within spitting distance of the third largest city in the United States – I am always taken aback that the bird bodies are there at all, and so many.
A nest fell from one of the tallest trees in the corner park, and the carcass lay right against the trunk. The first morning Scout and I came upon it, the parents mounted a riotous, all-out demonstration of their protective agony, complete with shrieking, wing-flapping, diving and swooping. Each morning Scout nosed the baby gently. We witnessed the body progress from its state of newly-fallen perfection, to being covered and consumed by teeming maggots, to becoming strewn bones and feather, until the morning when there was no remaining trace whatsoever.
It has been more than two weeks since we found the baby bird, more than a week since there has been any remaining sign of its life. Still, every morning the parents shriek and wail. Every morning they swoop down and peck the back of my very confused, 87-pound yellow lab. They follow us part of the way home.
Do animals understand death?