Birds do the strangest things! They’re like us that way. Also like us, most of what they do is predictable, even if its logic is not always conspicuous. Instinct, whatever that is.
Yes, but exceptions proving the rule are what afford insight.
One ordinary summer evening I stepped from thick pines into a clearing about the length of a soccer pitch and half as wide. It was calm at ground level, but you could hear a good breeze tickling treetops. There, at the clearing’s downwind edge I counted nine individual birds of at least five different species, golden eagle, vulture, raven and more than one kind of hawk, hovering uniformly line abreast and seeming almost to ignore each other even while soaring only yards apart.
Ask yourself, what circumstance could have brought that particular menagerie together and choreographed such a spectacle? Normally, eagles hunt rabbits and hawks take the squirrels. Vultures prefer revolting dead stuff, while ravens just look for trouble and eat everything they find. In this case however, none seemed to have anything in mind but simply seizing the day, like humans lolling in local wave on a winter Sunday. I have to think they were inspired by the same curiosity and whimsical pleasure we all share with invisible currents that defy gravity, especially unusual or unexpected ones. What else could it be?
No knowing how long that odd squad had floated there waiting for me, but after a while I tired of standing beneath them and lay down to watch, propping my head on a mossy rock. Supposing I’d never see anything like it again, I sought to comprehend as holistically as possible, triangulating from those birds’ eyes through my perspective as a soaring pilot, to a frame of fluid dynamics — and back. That, on such a timelessly peaceful evening, was evidently too much. It drew down the current in other parts of my brain, and when I woke the birds were gone…
Oh you’d be right to doubt this tale, but don’t! I didn’t dream it or dream it up, and have no need to exaggerate. That’s what really happened, Cub Scouts’ honor (a two-fingered salute for those of you not in the know). If we were to monitor that clearing for years and years I bet we’d see some kind of similar performance there, rarely but inevitably, time and again. A bet no fool would take. Either way, the sky, like the birds and ourselves, is also both predictable and a source of insightful exception.
Or are we like it?
To distinguish wavelets barely large enough for a sailplane, on the scale of a mile or less, some bandy the prefix micro. Admittedly flippant and imprecise by several orders of magnitude, but I’m okay with it. So if that’s allowed, for this riplet above the clearing I nominate nano. Why not after all? We need to call it something.
And one wonders, while I was busy dozing, did the nanowave eventually flatten out, or do birds get bored too? Both, is my guess.