Author: Jeremy Nathan Marks

Franco had fainted. It was 105 degrees in the city, and despite all the warnings on radio and television, he had insisted that he would go birdwatching.

Franco had heard that a male bobolink had been sighted in one of Detroit’s many tallgrass prairies. Local birders were posting breathless reports that a bobolink was in Detroit for the first time in decades.

@nighthawk2001 wrote: “It’s like I keep saying. Detroit is the future of birding. Detroit is the future of everything. If you believe in re-wilding, move to Detroit! #Detroitisbirds #Detroitwillsavestheworld

@warblerprothonos added: “We must talk to the city about turning our city prairies into parks. #parksavespecies #endangeredetroit

When Franco came to, the bird he’d come to see was sitting on his chest. It kept flapping its black and white wings furiously, sending tiny breezes Franco felt on his chin. The bird’s flapping wings broke Detroit’s oven-like stillness.

The heat fascinated Franco. A few years before, he’d travelled to Death Valley in summer and parked his car in Badwater Basin. Locals told him he was trying to kill himself, but Franco said, you don’t go to Death Valley trying to avoid the possibility of death. It had been 126 degrees the day he’d gone down into the valley. That morning, Franco told the prostitute he’d hired to stay with him all night, “I’m going to make sure my body remembers this day until I die.” She told him, “Why don’t you just stick your head in an oven? It’d be about the same.”

The bobolink fanned its wings and hopped up to the top of Franco’s chest. It turned one eye to him and then the other but said nothing. Franco could hardly believe what was happening. When his father died, he’d been sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard of his childhood home. Franco was almost asleep when a sparrow landed on his arm to wake him. The bird didn’t move even when he opened his eyes and his arm quivered despite his best attempts at remaining perfectly still. The sparrow -a male- stared at him for many moments before flying off.

The bobolink ambled up to Franco’s chin and stood looking down at him. The bird could have pecked his eyes, but Franco felt no danger. Why was the bird interested in him? Had it decided to save his life?

He watched the bird preen itself. It dropped a wing feather on the point of his chin, which Franco could feel balancing there like a seesaw. Then the bobolink bent forward and tapped Franco’s bottom lip with its beak before flying off.

In his pocket, Franco kept a flask of whiskey. It was a local product, Canadian Club, manufactured across the river in Windsor. He’d taken a tour of the Walkerville plant once, watching the distillers do their work. The guide told him all about the barley they brought in on boxcars, most of it coming from far away. “Why don’t you use local barley” Franco wanted to know. “It’s not the proper quality,” the guide said.

The whiskey felt good going down, but Franco knew he’d better get back to his car and drink some water. He had no idea how long he’d been out. The bobolink had not told him, but Franco figured that the bird had watched him faint and knew, in its birdlike way, just how long he’d been unconscious. If only he spoke the language of bobolinks.

Just that morning Franco had listened repeatedly to a recording made by ornithologists at Cornell University. He planned to use it to help him track down the bird he was searching for. Was there some Ph.D. who knew how to talk to these birds? Of course, there was. They just needed to spend the necessary time watching and listening, making their recordings, then taking them back to their big computers where they could break the chatter and songs down to the old binary of 1s and 0s. Then they needed some more time to set up an immersion program where all they heard was bobolink speech for weeks at a time.

Franco suddenly realized how badly humans needed birds. Human beings needed to make sure that birds were around to provide details about the many changes happening in the city at any given moment. Think about how many things birds saw that humans couldn’t because they lacked wings or couldn’t fit through the many keyhole spaces that make up any urban landscape. How many crimes might a bird help the police solve because of what they’d heard or the microscopic bits of evidence they found?

Then again, there were dozens of different bird species, so why did bobolinks matter more than, say, starlings or sparrows? Was it because they were prettier? Or was it because their absence made the human heart grow fonder?

At his car, Franco drank a thermos of water. Then he tried to start his engine, but the motor failed to turn over. He opened the hood and discovered that the starter wire, the power lead, was frayed. It was covered in tiny teeth marks.