I hate birds. They're boring, we have absolutely nothing in common, and they are that specific type of up-close ugly that's usually just for human gums and newborns. But over Fourth of July weekend, I put aside my hatred and went bird watching as part of a proud tradition I started four years ago wherein I write a column about animals while consuming uncomfortable amounts of alcohol. I invented it as a drinking game that allowed me to do my job on a holiday weekend while still showing my country I love her. The rules are simple: I drink every time I have to do any research for the article (as denoted by an asterisk), and I'm not allowed to quit until it's done. That's it. In fact, I was probably overreaching earlier when I called it "proud."
This year I upped the stakes by heading out into the field, rather than just sitting in front of a computer; unfortunately, actual wildlife is hard to come by in Los Angeles. Friends suggested that the best place to see animals in the city without the risk of immediately being arrested for drinking in public would be birding along the Los Angeles River.
Behold the natural beauty.
So I packed a camera, a notebook, a birding guide from the library (that I was unquestionably the first person to ever open), and a CamelBak full of booze. My wife was kind enough to burn a Saturday driving me and keeping me focused along the way when I lost interest or tried to climb on stuff instead.
Below I have transcribed everything I wrote (minus spelling errors and gibberish) about my adventure in that weepy discharge of waste Los Angeles pretends is a river and the only animals dumb enough to splash around in it. Other than me, obviously.
Mother Nature threw me a softball to start. We hopped the fence to the river and immediately spotted three crows fighting over a Doritos bag on a telephone pole. Crows may be the only bird I know well. They're essentially tiny flying octopi; they're experts at solving puzzles, building tools, and developing multilateral approaches to the situation in Ukraine. Science had no idea just how intelligent they were until recently, when an ornithologist caught them in the wild memorizing our faces. Overnight, a species that used to only be a harbinger of death in fiction suddenly became the spirit animal of pop culture. But as stunningly intelligent as crows can be, they're also kind of dicks.
Crows frequently orchestrate cat fights for no other reason than the thrill of secondhand violence. Crows know that even a neutered domesticated animal is only a hairsbreadth away from falling back on some instinctual savagery. The same weird satisfaction you feel watching nerds fistfight over the rules of Warhammer, crows feel while watching house cats clumsily try to tap into that atrophied beast within themselves so they can remember how a mauling is supposed to go.
(Add those videos of crows making cats fight. I think there are at least three, so these drinks are in good faith: ***)
They're also famous for stealing the windshield wipers off of cars. Not to use them as nesting material or to solve cold fusion or anything, just to be generally awful, and presumably to murder each of us while we're doing 70 on the highway and a storm hits.
As I took pictures of the crows, I told my wife they may be the only bird I actually like, and she suggested that maybe it's because I can relate to their enthusiasm for fucking up someone else's day. I'm taking an extra two drinks just to soothe that sick burn she laid on me.**
#4. The Osprey*
Within seconds of photographing the crows, something the size of a pterodactyl swooped down to chase them away and claim the same spot, because apparently all the birds in Los Angeles love this goddamn telephone pole. The birding guide was not prepared for me to see anything that could eat a dog, so I had to rely on my phone instead.
The osprey has a distinctive white breast* and a black streak across its eyes* that make it easy to identify. If you picture Pris from Blade Runner as a bird of prey, you've pretty much got it. The osprey can have a wingspan of almost 6 feet* and belongs to an entirely different family from hawks, falcons, and eagles.* In fact, it's the only surviving member of the Pandionidae* family, which isn't that surprising because it looks like a weird Ice Age holdout that's supposed to be extinct by now.
That snowy plumage blends in perfectly in Los Angeles.
We waited patiently for it to eviscerate something nearby, and for a few promising seconds, a woman strolled past with clueless Bichon Frise*, but the bird was having none of it. The osprey just sat on the post looking majestic and boring, while those crows were probably off building a Tesla coil by now. Man, I miss those crows.
#3. The Great Egret*
It's hard to convey here, but it took us just under two hours to find a single other bird. In that time, I realized that even though I had a bladder of alcohol on my back, I hadn't packed any water. When I asked my wife for some of hers, a quick skirmish broke out in the greater You Never Plan Ahead for Anything War. I mention all this because there are a bunch of unaccounted for drinks that happened during those dark two hours, most of them out of spite and hollow assurances that "Pirates lived on rum for months, I'll be fucking fine."
Now, on to this malnourished goose.
We had to ford a shallow stream of pure hepatitis just to get a clear shot of the great egret, and as soon as it noticed us, it started making a horrific choking noise. Whether it was trying to scare us off or convince us it had some sort of lung infection and wasn't worth eating I have no idea, but we watched it dry heave for over three minutes.* The great egret is easy to identify, with its long black legs* and narrow yellow bill it uses for spearing fish and reptiles.* It looks very similar to a crane, except it flies with its neck kinked and folded back on itself* because it has so much throat, it has no idea what to do with it all. Oh, it's also the symbol for the National Audubon Society*, which, frankly, probably isn't doing them any favors to recruit new members. If you want to get people excited about birds, give them a falcon pulling the wings off a sparrow in midair, not a lanky swan with scoliosis.