Opinion | The Birds on My Balcony Have Taught Me a Lot About the Pandemic

Last summer, a flock of greenfinches brightened up the balcony of my apartment in Berlin. They were small birds with pale pink beaks and plumage the color of ripening bananas. The leading edge of their gray wings turned a brilliant yellow, like a steel blade heated in a forge. I never imagined such vivid colors when I filled the feeder I had purchased on a whim. I had expected only the company of the sparrows I saw daily on the streets.

The greenfinches showed up in noisy groups and sparred for perches on the feeder. There was one bird, however, who foraged spilled seeds from the ground. He was a pompom of puffed feathers who handled his seeds clumsily and took long drinks of water from a jar. He sometimes rested in my flowers and let me come so close I could have snatched him with my hand. It was only later, after the greenfinches went away in winter, that I began to read about their nesting behaviors and realized the little bird was showing signs of trichomonosis, an infectious disease that has killed millions of Europe’s greenfinches since 2005.

Nature has been an escape for many of us during the Covid-19 pandemic. The freedom of wild animals has seemed especially wonderful when our own movements and associations have been clipped. If you watch wildlife closely, however, you will eventually witness the uncontrolled spread of illness — the worst-case scenario we have spent more than a year of our lives now trying to avoid.

The sick greenfinch on my balcony was suffering from ulcers on his throat that made it painful to swallow. Probably he starved. Had I recognized his illness at the time, I should have dumped the water and taken down the feeder to prevent him from infecting other birds. Ever since the greenfinches returned to my balcony this spring, I clean the feeder every week, change the water daily and sweep fallen seeds from the ground. My relationship with birds has come to resemble the rest of my life, with its many routines and anxieties around the detection and avoidance of disease.

Animal pandemics have much to teach us about our own. Last summer, when most of us were still finding our footing, I spoke to a crow ecologist at Binghamton University named Anne Clark, who mentioned “our pandemic,” sounding as though she had lived through this before. She was talking about the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne pathogen that killed nearly 40 percent of the crows at her study site near Ithaca, NY, in 2002 and 2003.

The trees were full of sick crows those years. They sat at a distance from their families with their feathers puffed out and disappeared within five days of showing signs of infection. “We would miss a bird that we really knew well,” Ms. Clark said when we spoke again recently. “You’d find his body behind a dumpster.” Her colleague Kevin McGowan from Cornell University returned to his office a few times to find someone had left a dead crow in his workspace. When the Covid-19 pandemic began, there were still some crows at their field site that had survived a second West Nile die-off in 2012 and 2013. Ms. Clark looked up at them and they looked back down at her. It felt as though their roles had been reversed.

Such stories are common among field biologists. Jane Goodall had been tracking chimpanzees in Tanzania for six years when a polio outbreak killed six animals in 1966 — an experience she has called “the darkest I have ever lived through.” The biologist Craig Packer had studied lions for more than 15 years when canine distemper virus spilled over from village dogs and killed more than a third of his animals in 1994. “The very day I arrived back in the Serengeti, one of our long-term study animals started having convulsions in a very shallow pond,” he remembers. “It just couldn’t lift its head and drowned.”

To watch sick animals suffer was terrible, but to look away would have been to miss an opportunity to learn. “You teach yourself to partition this: You’re a scientist and you’re collecting data,” says Menna Jones, a marsupial ecologist who saw almost 90 percent of Australia’s Tasmanian devils wiped out by a transmissible cancer called devil facial tumor disease.

In a 2006 paper, Ms. Clark and Mr. McGowan called the West Nile outbreak “a natural, albeit uncontrolled, experiment” that resulted in several “unusual social events.” With so much free territory, young female crows, who often disperse great distances, settled near and remained in close contact with their parents. One adult female who lost her mate and offspring paired up with the widowed male on a neighboring territory and then seemed to adopt his children when he died too. The next year, they even helped her raise her own children with a new mate. “West Nile made clear to us how important being a member of a group is to a crow,” Ms. Clark says.

Many of us would probably say the same about our own experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. Stories about infected crows sleeping in communal roosts make you grateful for the options of social distancing and isolation. (“You can’t get lions to wear masks,” Mr. Packer says.) It also helps you to understand our many failures as springing from our nature as social beings. “We think of this pandemic as a peculiarly human experience, but it is really the experience of all highly social animals,” Ms. Clark says. Rather than looking to wild animals as symbols of hope or freedom, maybe we can recognize them simply as fellow creatures with only the hand of natural selection to balance the cruel benefits of community and cooperation against the risks of disease.

That lesson is written all over nature, even in the most vigorous animals — even in the brightest greenfinches on my balcony. Studies have shown that greenfinches with brighter colors tend to be more resistant to infections, and greenfinches that survived trichomonosis outbreaks in Estonia had darker tail feathers than those that died. Findings like these have led scientists to hypothesize that birds evolved bold colors to advertise strong immune systems to potential mates. Documenting the sickness of animals can lead us to the sources of their beauty. The faces of suffering and splendor are not always as different as they seem.

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