Brandon Brook Michalik
Brandon Brook Michalik is a writing instructor in the Department of English at Arizona State University, where she earned her M.F.A. in poetry in 2007. She currently lives in Mesa, Arizona.
I love to dance, but I’m a terrible dancer, awkward and self-conscious, not at all at home in my body. So I rather envy other animals their natural affinity for moving and connecting to place. Unlike me, they do not seem to question the truth of their skin and blood and muscle and bones. Think of birds, for example: they’re guided by inner compasses, the workings of evolution in motion, unfolding into a rhythm of sway and surrender. They sense the earth’s magnetic fields and navigate accordingly, in a seasonal hopscotch from one geographic location to another or simply swooping among city and suburban avenues in chattering round. They do not consider human-made borders, but weave their way into location, needles pulling threads of light, following ancient, proscribed ancestral patterns across field, island, mountain, and meadow, only changing pattern when climate change or some turn in the magnetic forces demands it of them.
In parts of the desert Southwest, including the Phoenix metro area, where I live, some birds do not migrate very far, since the climate permits year-round residency. Instead, they move street to street seeking sanctuary in Palo Verde, mesquite, saguaro, and palm, wherever they’re able to linger and enjoy plentiful food. Urban birds are master foragers, but their survival instincts do not have to kick in much to give them the best advantage, since Phoenix provides ample resources. They’re at home in a way I don’t know I’ll ever be.
Every time I spy flashes of green, I don’t think the birds are real. Someone’s pet parrot must have gotten loose and flown up into the date palms. I must be imagining a whole tree full of them, swaying and singing. But this is in my neighborhood. And I see them in other spots: in the palms on the Arizona State University campus where I work; in a park in the town of Gilbert; in a backyard in the city of Mesa. Rosy faced lovebirds, Agapornis roseicollis, dozens of them at times, join pigeons and doves and finches for foraging at feeders. They occupy people’s lawns, staging bright protests in search of seeds. Later I learn they’ve escaped captivity and because they originally came from a hot, dry desert climate, they’ve adapted to Phoenix’s environment readily. They’ve made this strange new land home.
Green and blue feathers, peachy-red faces, glow in the shade of fronds. An eye or a beak appears and disappears. Theirs is a dance I celebrate and do not feel self-conscious about. The mechanics of physics, once set in motion, can change, becoming graceful, fluid, more assured. These birds are just that, an aberrance winging from one tree to the next, churning out spunky little lines of music, one squeaky-wheeled peep at a time.
I first meet them on an early morning walk. The light is hushed and slow, as if everything around me, not just my own body, is waking. I leave my apartment and make my way down a side street. On this route, I pass a particular circle of stunted palms. They’re shorter, stubbier, fatter versions of their elderly neighbors. Clumped together on a corner, they’re not yet at the stage where they produce dates. Someone’s trying to grow an oasis.
This whole community is an oasis, in some ways. It’s older than most places in the Phoenix metro area, though not exactly historic. Vintage is a better word for it. It’s longstanding enough, however, that the drive toward sameness and order occupying so much of this city gives way to a subtle, gentle kind of variation: ranch style homes, façades and xeriscape or subtropical vegetation and décor varying in gradations. Mixed in with single family housing are apartment complexes, duplexes, a park, churches, and an elementary and middle school. On the far edges bordering the neighborhood are strip malls. The location is comfortable, worn-in, even if the threads are starting to show a bit. The vegetation, especially the trees, keeps this location cooler, more welcoming during the hottest parts of the day, compared to newer tile-roofed developments further east.
On this particular street, residents have planted multiple date palms at the edges of their yards. Most have been standing for decades: their thick, untrimmed trunks column upward twenty feet or more into shaggy fronds, which remind me of mountain men’s beards. I refer to this location as “the palm street.”
The zone between the trunk and the top of the trees is a shadow world, a biosphere for bugs and birds. I used to live on another block just to the east, where we had the palms in our front yard trimmed regularly because of the pigeons, which liked to nest in the shaggy tops. These ragged masses also attract beetles, cicadas, bees, and wasps. Scorpions breed beneath the bark of palm trees, although fortunately I’ve never run into any.
In this most unlikely of places, a suburb in the middle of a desert, a transplant is taking root. Green, blue, rose, yellow; not subtle but lush varieties of color, tropical fruit dancing in a jungle of palms, juicy and full of movement, swish my senses open wide.
Rosy-faced lovebirds are natives of another desert southwest: Africa, including the countries of Namibia, South Africa, and Angola. Brought into the valley during the 1980s as pets, some of them were set loose accidentally and eventually became markers on the local landscape, living wherever vegetation has provided them with nesting space. They’re particularly attracted to areas of metro Phoenix settled for longer periods of time, where old growth trees provide the best canopy. The neighborhoods north of downtown Phoenix, Arcadia on the Scottsdale/Phoenix border, the city of Tempe but particularly the older neighborhoods around downtown, west Mesa bordering and including its downtown, northeast Mesa in the Red Mountain district, and Gilbert Water Ranch are some of the locations where lovebirds commonly congregate.
The lovebirds are not the only transplants here. Many Phoenicians are non-natives, and due to the warm winter weather, the area is a hot spot for a transient homeless population escaping colder winter weather in other locations. Feral cat colonies are also part of the landscape, thriving at the edge of neighborhoods and in lots behind shopping centers. And anywhere humans have set up camp, native and non-native foragers alike have managed to find in-roads. Pigeons and coyotes, among others, are semi-permanent occupants of fields and neighborhoods.
I feel semi-permanent myself. It’s strange to me that I do not refer to the valley as “home,” despite my 18 years here. Instead, home for me is Virginia, where I was born and raised. I’m a native southerner who uprooted myself and ran away to the desert in my early twenties, and while I haven’t returned east other than for brief visits, I see myself as a refugee in the desert, not a native or even an adopted citizen. Home is a past captured in my head, images suspended in a crystal ball I scry for meaning and clarity.
I hide this knowledge well most of the time. I “blend in” because I know the spaces I occupy so well: my tiny living space, the streets around me, the bus and train systems that carry me around the suburbs and city, the freeways and flight paths that temporarily take me to other places, like Tucson and Los Angeles and Las Vegas and occasionally back home to Virginia or as far away as the British Isles.
At times I feel sad not belonging. Because when you dig under the surface, below the built skin of tarmac and concrete and glass, resilience is this place’s character. And it’s a character I admire. Rainfall is intermittent and scattered in the Sonoran Desert, but natives have adapted to this environment with elegant pastiche, opening and blossoming or burrowing through the sand into the mud or scratching out canals to catch water on the rare occasions it’s available in plenty.
Ironically, I’ve felt more at home visiting the green Highlands of Scotland, where my ancestors left for America during the 17th and 18th centuries, than I ever have in my years in the desert. However, I don’t view the desert like some visitors and even old-timers, who’ve told me simply, “It’s ugly.” That’s a point-of-view born from simply touching down in a place, not lingering and letting it needle its way into you. You could live here for years and avoid the desert simply by sticking to the city and its air-conditioned interiors. I cannot look at it so naively. And yet I also can’t shake the feeling of being a scavenger among scavengers.
The Phoenix metro area is currently the only location in the US where a large population of lovebirds has taken up long-term residency. This is owing to climate, food, and living space, coupled with a low level of natural predators. As with any feral animal, scientists and nature lovers are concerned about the birds’ encroachment into the territories of native species and the possible importation of diseases that could one day wipe out both the lovebird and other native populations. While locals who study the birds have reported that they rarely invade other birds’ territory and food sources, it’s unclear what their long-term impact will be on environment and habitats.
And so there is both beauty and an unspoken fear in their presence. The opening scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho was filmed in downtown Phoenix. The view of the Westward Ho is part of a sweeping panorama of downtown. I think of it as the elegant quiet before the coming storm. We can love almost anything in that moment, even the Norman Bateses we have created. They don’t belong here, for all intents and purposes, but here they are. And someday, there are bound to be repercussions. Yes, from the birds, but even more so, from us humans.
I’ve seen the lovebirds at feeding stations with rock pigeons, mourning doves, house sparrows, grackles, and the occasional cactus wren, and while they stand out because of their bold colors, they also seem to blend right in with the feeding flocks, another avian layer. They’ve returned to a semi-wild state: heat lightning, intense and full of purpose, conversing in the palms. I sometimes wonder if they’re speaking to the trees, telling them what they need: food, shelter, familiarity. Dozens gather to greet the day.
I feel like I’ve discovered a secret. When I ask other people, some are unaware of the lovebirds. Many have never seen them. I must be one of those few weird people who dare to pay attention. They reappear near my office, swarming, playing tag, the little spit of blue on their tails shining against all odds among the shag and fruit of the trees. And in my readings, I discover that they do not come in singular color patterns. Genetic modifications have led to bright yellow birds with rosy halos on their faces, the occasional odd turquoise/blue variation, and other possibilities. Apparently, genetic variants of lovebird colors and patterns can be quite complex.
My occasional glimpses of wings and feathers and beaks seem wild and vulnerable, something lost in the process of becoming “more civilized.” As humans, we’ve abandoned our own wildness, so we try to seize it again for ourselves, wherever we can find it, and we accidentally recreate it in other contexts. But we end up instead creating something entirely different: a creature that may look wild on the surface but is really feral. The rosy-faced lovebirds have moved from wild to domestic to semi-wild again. I’m not sure what their future is, but I know it’s tied to that of humans, tentative and potentially lost in our attempts to separate ourselves from this world into which we’ve been born. No matter where I live, I know each step I take away from being animal is a step away from truly being at home.
The birds appear carefree, despite their status as scavenger transplants. And their cheery appearance puzzles me at times. They seem to stay in a state of constant playfulness, something I’ve never experienced, except perhaps when I was a child. But that may be my own mind putting an unfair spin on them, envying them because I wish that quality for myself. I’m not the only one. Recently, the lovebirds have been added to the American Birding Association’s (ABA) checklist for serious birders. When avian lovers come to the Southwest, they can claim this bird as another species of the Americas (albeit accidental) they’ve spied through rose-colored binoculars.
A part of me also wants to take up the banner of the rosy-faced lovebird, in the name of all that is both bleak and beautiful. Like the birds, I want to embody a spirit of joie de vivre, a simple dedication to being fully alive in my skin and where, for better or worse, I choose to plant myself. I want to be part of a community where I’m strengthened by the bonds of connection to the land, relationship to others I share it with, and everyday song, dance, and play. And I want to create home, whatever that might look like. I suppose this makes me an idealist, but it also makes me hopeful.
Recently, walking from one end of campus to the other, I encounter another flock in a date palm. One bird hangs upside down from a tight cluster of waxy yellow fruit, in a precise limbo that reminds me of acrobats in a Cirque du Soleil performance: sea green feathers waving at the crowd, peachy-red mask across the face, and remarkably accurate grace. A single black bead of an eye nods to me as I pause to observe. I nod back, an acknowledgement of its presence and my own momentary admiration. I’m unsure if it understands, but hopefully civilization hasn’t drummed the animal out of me yet.