Me, forty-one, walking with Theo, four, and we are in the totally age-appropriate rut of why, and but whyyy, and I am not at all annoyed, just enjoying the moment because he is, barring a medical miracle, my last progeny, and he will never be four again and one really can’t bank on grandkids because I could choke on a bagel tomorrow and, anyways, their—the grandkids—conception isn’t really up to me now is it? So, the sidewalk is empty and we are in no hurry at all, and in the grass we see a crowd of scaly-breasted munias, so tiny and cute, also known as ricebirds or nutmeg mannikins (from the Dutch for “little man”!) or spice finches (which sounds like drug slang), and as we pass they chitter and hop further away and some go airborne in less time than it takes to think or blink, darting through the air like fish. And then it starts again with Why are there birds? Because they evolved. (Very hard to explain to a four-year-old.) But, why are there birds? Because someone brought them here. Because this is their home. Because God made them and they are beautiful. This progresses to But why do we need birds? repeated, with the emphasis on need getting louder and louder each time as in Why do we Need birds? Why do we NEED them? while I walk along in silence, speechless, having already hit the Why Wall, the Cul-de-sac of Spiritual Logic—we need the birds because they are beautiful; the birds are beautiful because we need them—thinking half-heartedly about ecosystems and birds’ vital roles in seed dispersal and insect control, etc., etc. but also astonished because in the space of a short ten seconds I go from never having thought about birds as something I needed, personally, to wondering if birds could even be a need, to knowing deep down that yes, yes dammit, I do need birds, I need them and not just because of all the complex ecological reasons but also because when I see a company of munias flutter away I flutter too, and when I am walking to my office and I see a golden plover eyeing me while it never stops foraging in the dirt under the coconut palms—charging up for its 3,000-mile nonstop flight back to Alaska—I just start talking to it, something I don’t normally do with random birds, because plovers are bird celebrities and I am awestruck and don’t care who sees me conversing with this fowl, and when I walk away it feels like I’ve just, like, witnessed something. In other words: I was present. In other words, my sweet son, if you are grown now and reading this, we need the birds like we needed each other that day: to feel alive. And the inverse: without them we are less alive. Like how football is never really Football unless you’re watching it with Uncle Jeff. Or how the holidays aren’t quite the Holidays after your parents are gone. Birds are family (give or take 600 million years of evolutionary time). And if that’s too sentimental, how about this: birds are cash. That extra fifty bucks you save on gas one month because the weather is good enough to bike to work. And then you end up needing that money to make rent. Birds are like that, an unexpected windfall. The little bit of extra we didn’t even know we needed until we did. Could birds be the difference for us, the razor-thin margin, between homed and homeless? Between flush and strapped? Between, possibly, life and death? Who knows? Do you want to take that chance? I don’t. We need them and maybe, mayyybe, hopefully, they need us. I’ll try asking the plover. In the meantime, Theo, if you are still wondering how the conversation ended, I admit that I finally just told you the same thing I always said when pressed to the absolute limit of Why? I said, Just because. And, really, no reason is still a mighty fine reason when it comes to birds—with words being ultimately no match for what just is, right? But alas, my boy, you were young and disappointed with my chronic lack of satisfying explanations (as if anything would have satisfied you, really) and you cheerily moved on to asking Why are there streets? and Why is you like donuts so much?

Joe Plicka’s work has more recently appeared online in BoothHobartEkstasis Magazine, and Monkey Bicycle. He lives and teaches in Hawaii with his family, a shaggy dog, and a red-vented bulbul.

Photo by Dinah Lenney