Well, why do birds suddenly appear?

Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!

— Bullwinkle

Many years ago, “Professor Doodles’ Just For Kids Corner,” in our local newspaper’s Sunday comics supplement, ran the following riddle:

Q. What bird is with you?
A. The swallow.

The question was presumably supposed to have been something along the lines of “What bird is with you at every meal?” — but somehow the last few words had been omitted, transforming what had been intended as a lame pun into something more like a kōan.

Naturally, we kids thought this was, by a very wide margin, the Professor’s funniest riddle ever, and we quoted it incessantly. “What bird is with you?” — or just “What bird?” — came to be used as a general-purpose expression of complete bewilderment.

*

Yesterday, I happened to be thinking about this expression and its history as I was riding back home from my morning classes, when I noticed something odd-looking in the middle of the road. At first I thought it was just some random piece of rubbish and rode right past it, but then the thought registered, “Wait, was that a roadkilled swallow?” I turned my motorcycle around and went back to check — and, sure enough, it was a swallow, though not a roadkilled one. It was a live swallow — to all appearances, perfectly healthy and uninjured — but it was just sitting there in the middle of the road, waiting to be hit by a car or nabbed by a stray cat.

This would not do, so, putting on some gloves, I picked the bird up. It perched on my finger, holding on tight and twitching its tail a bit, and looked at me. This was the first time I’d ever seen a stationary swallow at such close range, and it was really an exquisite little creature. The feathers, which look plain black when you see a swallow zipping past you at high speed, are actually iridescent blue; and the bird blinks with milky reptilian-style eyelids that close from side to side. I set the swallow down under a tree by the roadside, dropped off my motorcycle at home, and came back on foot. It was still there where I’d left it, so I picked it up again, thinking I’d probably take it to an avian vet I know. This time, though, it only perched on my finger for a few seconds before taking off and flying away into the distance. Apparently it could fly all along; I have no idea what it was doing sitting in the middle of the road. (Something similar happened with a little brown bat that showed up on my doorstep one morning. It let me pick it up, and I was quite sure it was unable to fly, but after drinking some milk it suddenly spread its wings and began flying around the living room.)

*

This is not the first time I’ve been thinking of a particular kind of bird, only to have an actual bird of that species suddenly materialize and walk into my life. Back in 2011 (as described in this post), I had just been reading about a boy who had had a racing pigeon with a number band on its leg show up at his house — when a racing pigeon with a number band on its leg showed up at my house!

*

More recently — a week or two ago — I pulled off a similar Jumanji-like trick with a centipede. I’m usually in the middle of three or four different books at any given time, and at that time I was reading (among others) C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters and Piers Anthony’s Centaur Aisle. Shortly after having read in Centaur Aisle about “nickelpedes” — described as being like centipedes but five times as big and fierce — I turned to Screwtape and found that I had come to the part where the title character inadvertently transforms himself into a large centipede. I was just about to mention this not-terribly-impressive coincidence to my wife when I noticed something big and black wriggling across the living room floor. It was, of course, an enormous centipede — only the third centipede I’ve encountered in the past decade.

(Years ago I designed a vaguely tarot-inspired deck of picture cards, and one of the cards depicted a big black centipede crawling out of an open book. That card seems a little creepy now.)

*

Obviously these experiences can’t possibly be anything other than freak coincidences, but — well, let’s just say I’m making a point of not reading any books about cobras these days.

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3 Comments

Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity

3 responses to “Well, why do birds suddenly appear?

  1. Samson J.

    Centaur Isle! I haven’t thought about that book for probably almost 20 years! I wonder if Pier Xanthony is still writing those things…

  2. I hadn’t touched Xanth in ages, either. And, yes, he’s still writing those things; the 37th novel in the series is due out later this year.

  3. Samson J.

    They must be on the fifth or sixth generation of characters, then…

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