As I hurried along this morning, shivering each time a blast of wind dropped the wind chill into the low twenties, I found myself reflecting on my odd prejudices against certain forms of wildlife. There really is no rationale for the privileged status I ascribe to some critters and withhold from others. Highest on my list are the deer who appear from time to time, sometimes far off in the woods but at other times dashing across the road just ahead of me. On those days, I feel that I have something important to report to Susie. Rabbits are always welcome, and on one occasion a red fox burst out of the brush and ran across the road. A very big day, that. But far and away the most frequent sightings are of squirrels, scurrying through the grass or running up the trunks of trees. They are not even worth turning my head to see, and I would certainly never come home, call out to Susie, and report breathlessly that I had seen a squirrel.
The same pecking order, if I may out it that way, obtains among birds. Blue Herons are always worth a mention, and the three occasions on which I have seen two or even three herons together have been true "To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street" days. The very occasional hawk, spotted high in a tree, is certainly worth a mention and I take note of, though I rarely report, sightings of cardinals. But crows, which are seen in abundance in and around the condominium project where I live, are no more noteworthy than cars.
Now none of this makes any sense whatsoever. Consider crows, for example. A gathering of fifteen or twenty crows [what used to be called a Parliament of Crows] is an impressive sight. Crows are big, rather menacing birds, as Alfred Hitchcock had the wit to recognize. Surely twenty crows perched on the roof of a building are more worthy of mention than one lone heron plodding about in a pond looking for frogs. And yet Susie would think I was mad if I rushed in from my walk and called out, "I just saw twenty crows."
When it comes to birds, you might imagine that big or colorful would be the measures of importance. Now, a good sized pigeon is almost as big as a small hawk, and a Blur Jay is far more colorful than a Black Capped Sparrow. Why do we dismiss pigeons and Blue Jays as beneath notice, while chattering excitedly about spotting a Tit?
The late and much lamented Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay thirty-four years ago called "Mickey Mouse Meets Konrad Lorenz" in which he explained that the "aww, isn't that cute" response that we have to dolphins and pandas and Mickey Mouse is a result of the arrangement and relative size of their facial features, which mimic those of a little baby -- eyes big relative to size of face, head big relative to body. Our response, Gould speculates, has developed evolutionarily to favor hungry and harried primates that care for their young. I often think that something similar is at work in our response to certain film stars. First Audrey Hepburn, then Julia Roberts, and now Anne Hathaway have those big eyes, set wide apart, and a too-large mouth that bursts into a face-splitting smile that is simply irresistible, much as the smile of a little baby captivates us.
All of which no doubt explains but does not justify my privileging of deer over squirrels and herons over crows. It really does not seem fair. Perhaps tomorrow I shall come in from my walk and cry excitedly, "Susie, I saw a squirrel!" I wonder what she will say.