Cameron was having a bad day.
Slumped in a chair in Tony’s basement, he laid it all out: he got fussed out at work, was short of funds, and had just had a terrible fight with his girlfriend. To close his day, he decided to take a drive in his Jeep. Driving his Jeep, he said, made him happy. But then…
“’Bam! Bam, bam, bam!’ They were pelting the front and the side of my Jeep like little Kamikazes,” Cameron said as I entered the basement for a night of story-swapping and trip-planning.
“Cameron, what are you talking about?” I asked with great interest.
“It was terrible, Joey: I was out driving, and I saw this massive flock of birds walking around on the ground in someone’s yard off to the left,” he told me. “I thought, ‘man, that’s a lot of birds,’ and, right then, they all at once just took off like a big gray cloud. I thought they were going to fly away, but they didn’t; the whole flock just flew right out into the road.”
“Well, what’d you do?” I asked.
“I couldn’t do anything. They were everywhere,” he said. “I just kept cringing and driving until I got through it. And then I looked in my rearview mirror and saw all these birds laying in the road. A lot of them were dead, and some were almost dead and were flopping about like fish out of water.”
Cameron, with his Jeep, during happier days.
“Oh that’s awful!” I said.
“Yeah, I felt really bad,” he confessed. “I still feel really bad, but there was nothing I could do. It was like they were all on a suicide mission.”
The Jeep itself was a mess of feather and smeared bird… I don’t know, bird something. Cameron described in grim detail how he heard them desperately beating against the plastic windows of the Jeep, how they’d hit with such force that he’d had to stop shortly thereafter to squeegee off his windshield and readjust the side-view mirrors.
We had all seen birds fly into a closed window, or a pet parakeet fly into a mirror because of the reflection, but we’d never heard of anything the likes of what Cameron had experienced. If I didn’t know him better I would have sworn he was making it up. The thing about Cameron, though is that he never had to make this stuff up.
Despite Cameron’s unintentional bird massacre, we had convened at Tony’s with a mission to plan our trip to Florida in two weeks, so after getting over the shock of Cameron’s incident we got down to business. We left Tony’s basement that night with the satisfaction that another quick weekend vacation had been planned and the knowledge that at least one flock of birds had been infiltrated by a featherbrained cult leader and led into mass suicide.
A few days passed and by the middle of the week Cameron and I once again found ourselves hanging out at Tony’s. As we entered the door, Tony, who was sitting at his computer to the right of us, turned to face us with a look of contained excitement on his face.
“Cameron,” he began, “what day was it that you hit that flock of birds?” He was almost giddy. And Tony’s not a man who gets giddy. It was a little creepy.
A cedar waxwing, during happier days.
“Saturday,” Cameron said.
“And what road were you driving on when you hit them?” Tony asked.
“Banks Mill. Why?” a concerned Cameron asked.
“Funny thing happened to me at the office the other day,” Tony said. Tony was working as a reporter for the local daily paper, the Sentinel. “I had just got in for the day, and one of the photographers started talking to one of the other reporters about a ‘bird story.’ So, I asked them about this bird story. Seems someone found a massive collection of dead birds along Banks Mill Road on Saturday. The health department is investigating.”
“Really?” I said, not too surprised. This was at the time that the danger of the West Nile Virus to elderly people was a popular news story in Georgia, because the disease is spread by mosquitoes and if there’s two things Georgia has, it’s peaches and mosquitoes.
“Yeah, well, you know one sign that West Nile may be present in an area is finding birds that have died from being bitten by infected mosquitoes,” Tony said.
“Yeah I’ve heard of that,” Cameron said. “What about it?”
“Well, you see, when you find a dead bird, you’re supposed to report it to the health department, so that they can check it out to see if the bird died of West Nile or not,” Tony said. “So, you might could imagine the sheer terror one might face upon finding a total of 19 dead birds in one’s yard.”
“Are you saying that…,” I started before Tony interrupted me.
“I’m saying that when I was at the office today, one of our reporters was checking out a story about someone finding 19 dead cedar waxwings on Banks Mill Road,” Tony said.
We all started laughing. “It can’t be,” I said.
“When did they find them?” Cameron asked.
“Saturday,” Tony chuckled. “I just searched on the Internet for a picture of a cedar waxwing. Is this the bird that flew into your Jeep, Cameron?”
“Yeah, that’s them.” Cameron started giggling.
“Like I said, when you find one dead bird it’s a scare, but 19 is a crisis,” Tony said. “Someone probably came outside and saw all those dead birds and just freaked the hell out. They’re urging old people and children to stay inside if they live near the area where those birds were found.”
“Did you tell your co-worker that those birds committed suicide into the side of your friend’s vehicle?” I asked, knowing that as mischievous as Tony was that he definitely didn’t tell his coworker.
“I thought about it, but the guy said that the workers had already sent the birds off to the University of Georgia to determine the cause of death,” Tony said with a sadistic grin. “They held a press conference. I guess the autopsy results will come back with blunt force trauma as the cause of death?”
The thought of professional public health workers carefully collecting the massacre in little plastic baggies, marking them and sending them to a laboratory made me smile. The likely reaction of the biologist who would determine that all 19 of these birds sent in from Douglas County had been simply hit by a car made me smile wider.
“So, I killed 19 of those little birds, huh?” Cameron said sadly.
Always the optimist, Tony knew just how to cheer Cameron up. “Yeah, but look on the bright side: you single-handedly caused the largest West Nile virus scare this county has ever seen.”
Driving to Panama City Beach for our weekend away, stopping for one of the many fill-ups the glorified tractor that is a Jeep requires, we spied something peculiar in the springs inside the front wheel well of Cameron’s vehicle. The three of us knelt beside the Jeep, peering at the grayish mash jammed between the coils.
“No way,” Cameron said.
“Awesome,” I said.
“Heh,” said Tony. “That means it was an even 20.”
Note: While searching online for pictures of cedar waxwings to give an accurate description of the birds for this story, I came across a great many articles depicting the habits of the little gray birds. Cedar waxwings are renowned for their voracious appetite and a tendency to eat fermented fruit and berries. When a bird weighing only a few ounces gets a belly full of fermented berries, well, they have trouble flying in a straight line — or just flying at all.
According to the state of Georgia’s health department on West Nile testing of birds in 2005: “Cedar waxwings, which are never positive, were the third most frequently submitted bird. This bird usually dies from drunken flying into windows or is found dead from alcohol poisoning from eating fermented berries.”
Maybe Cameron won’t feel so bad when he finds out that the birds were FUI (flying under the influence).