“Bird Heaven,” by Ben Unglesbee

Dec 1st, 2021 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

Feb 1

Time to face reality. My upstart public aquarium isn’t taking off. This morning it amounted to five fish, one of which turned out to be some sort of serial killer and assassinated the others, until it was just him. So, one fish. This week I called around, ended up with a very conditional agreement to loan me a sea turtle. Needless to say, I will have to catch my own sharks. The real blow was Dirk, my angel investor, lost all his capital in the GameStop bubble.

Plans in shambles, me in a bath-robed clump on the floor, my wife, Val, suggested I get a hobby. And here it is: My birding diary! I plan to turn our backyard into an ornithological paradise. All the birding guides said to keep a diary. It’s just nice to do something for the pure pleasure of it. No business model, no aggressive questions from the zoning office or emails from PETA coordinators. I’ve always loved animals, and it’s too late to get a PhD in zoology (according to an ultimatum from Val, who was never 100% onboard with the aquarium).

Inaugural bird observation (!): I saw a blue jay today. And a couple of brown birds. Will know more as I read the guidebooks.

Feb 3

I hung four bird feeders in the back yard today; more to come. I spent a fortune on seed. I got the organic sunflower seeds. There were some vicious debates online in the birding chat rooms about this. Some people will call you a monster if you get the regular stuff. I don’t want any more trouble with PETA , so I played it safe.

Birds haven’t found it yet. Aren’t they hungry? Can’t they smell? How do they ever find food? Do we all live and die by dumb luck?

Feb 5

I was gone for about five hours today. For a minute there it looked like the aquarium was back on after Dirk made some quick money from his AMC investment. So, I went to talk to Nick St John about an octopus. Idiot, it was just a jellyfish. When will I ever learn? Never buy wildlife from a pot dealer. (Likewise, don’t buy drugs from someone who owns his own “zoo.”) Dirk lost everything before the market closed anyway.

When I came back, one of the feeders was on the ground, seed scattered everywhere, most of it eaten. It must have been an organized effort, followed by a feeding frenzy. Jarring, but I have to remind myself that they are wild animals. They have no institutions to restrain them, no culture of moderation inherited from Socrates and his admirers. I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it, though maybe I could have stopped it. It haunts me.

Feb 6

Here’s the part where all is revealed: It wasn’t birds at all! It was a squirrel. He came again today for the same feeder, which I had taped back together. He jumped on it from a tree, like a bushy-tailed Bruce Willis jumping onto a helicopter in a movie. He made quick work of the tape, and starting gorging himself on the spoils. I chased him off with an oxygen pump (which are all over my damn house from the aquarium’s design phase).

Feb 7

Slept in today. When I got up and checked the yard, there had been another smash-and-grab job on a different feeder. This is messed up. That squirrel must be brought to justice!

Feb 10

The squirrel was back today, but he didn’t climb the tree. He looked contemplative. My hypothesis is he has eaten so much seed in recent days that he has satisfied his hunger and is starting to move up (or is it down?) Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He’s looking for social engagement, answers to life, beauty, maybe a family. I still plan to kill the little bastard for what he’s wrought. Perhaps I’ll sell him for meat to recoup my costs for the feeders. Or maybe sell him to a carnival. “Fatty, the meditative squirrel” — I’d pay three or four bucks to see that. I can’t be alone.

Feb 12

The squirrel is gone. I have no idea where to. Afflicted by ennui, maybe he went to find himself. Or was too blubbery and slow to make it out of the way of a car. I’m at peace with either possibility.

Feb 15

I put out little bits of twine and yarn, and packed little balls of mud after recalling that birds use all these things for their nests. I want them to think of my backyard as a kind of old timey general store. Come get your seed and materials for your house, like Sears in the 19th century.

Feb 20

Ever have the feeling there is someone staring and smiling derisively at you? Turn around — it’s probably a cat. That’s what it was today, when I looked behind myself whilst filling the feeders. I knew that our neighbor, Jack, succumbed to the pressure from his girls and bought a cat. Now apparently it’s become an outdoor cat.

I remembered something: Cats eat birds! I went inside and did some reading. Turns out they eat a lot of birds! By now the cat was in my back yard. Our bird sanctuary was in danger of becoming a bird D-day. I went outside and, as you do with a bear, made myself large and shouted at the cat. At first it just stared at me like some arrogant, world-wary teenager, but eventually it moved on, swishing its tale like a little jackass.

Feb 26

Jack’s cat came back to our yard, but this time I was ready. Someone on a bird-lover site suggested sensor-activated sprinklers to ward off cats. Unfortunately, I don’t have the money for that. (I do have a surplus of water pumps, but converting them to sprinklers seemed impractical after a little research.)  So I bought a Super Soaker and keep it near the door now. The cat’s smug smile is gone. Every time that little bird-murderer sees me, he flinches and runs.

Feb 28

Today I got a scary-sounding letter from the Humane Society, wringing its hands about “animal torture” and “cats can experience psychological trauma, too.” So can birds, you jabronis!

Jack. He has the same whiny sense of entitlement and innate righteousness as his cat. It will be the downfall of our own species, mark my words. I went to work on my own letter. Didn’t have the time to jump through bureaucratic hoops, so let’s say I “borrowed” the logos and letterheads of PETA and the Nature Conservancy (I have both in my correspondence archives), and I wrote a righteous letter of my own about the destruction cats have wrought on bird populations. Maybe I’ll actually apply for a job with one of those groups. For once, I felt like I was doing good in the world. I felt fulfilled, like the that squirrel.

March 5

Jack moved! His wife and girls and, more to the point, cat moved too. It seemed all of the sudden, but Jack and I have never talked much and not at all since the incident of the letters, so maybe it was already in the works. Or maybe they wanted bigger killing fields for the cat. Who knows with people.

The birds seem to be celebrating along with me. Outside in our trees today, there was a wondrous Hitchcockian swarm of wrens, or maybe it was sparrows, or something else. I went out to watch them and just … be with them. It seemed like a party, in my back yard, and I thought I’d check it out. They were feasting on something and kept dropping half-masticated berries as they cheeped and screeched at each other. It was like a slushy red snow falling from the trees, at times dribbling on me, my hair, and my chair. I kept repositioning, but always got hit by the berries ultimately.

Val told me later it was poop. But it didn’t smell bad, I argued. Just to be safe, I took a 45-minute shower.

March 20

Today I bought an easel, canvas and paints, and set everything up in the back to paint the birds. The birds themselves are art, I know, but the least I can do as a human is recognize that fact with art of my own. The thing about that is, though, it’s impossible! Birds never sit still for more than like four seconds. I guess at some level I knew this already, but it never really registered until I tried to paint them.

April 1

It’s kind of weird that I haven’t seen any birds having intercourse. Of course, that’s not the reason I’m doing all this, but I assumed it was a fairly common thing. Unless the birds are just very furtive and subtle about it. Not a whole big to-do with furniture, gymnastics, barking, nondisclosure agreements and the occasional ice skates like with humans. The birds are nonchalant and unabashed, doing it so casually in the open you don’t even notice it’s happening, while it’s happening. Just like with their poop, which I didn’t know was poop even while it was raining down on me. It’s a reminder that I still have a lot of observing, and learning, to do.


Ben Unglesbee is a writer and journalist based in the Washington, DC, area [Rockville-ish]. By day he’s a business reporter with Retail Dive, and the rest of the time he’s the father of two small feral primates that are constantly demanding salted peanuts and trips to the pool. He grew up in the Midwest, and every state he’s lived in has been more humid than the one he left it for. His great project in life is to replace all of his clothes with moisture-wicking fabrics. Ben’s humor fiction has previously appeared in Hobo Pancakes and Clever Magazine, and a comic crime novel he wrote, The Discount Detectives, was published with Open Books.

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