There Are No Flies On Us
by Theodore Dalrymple
Good intentions can no more redeem abysmal ignorance than can encyclopaedic knowledge redeem an ill will.
Good will is necessary but not sufficient: a painful lesson in life and one that has often to be relearned because it is so easily and wilfully forgotten. Benevolence can often be useless or even on some occasions harmful and our best intentions may be misunderstood and taken for the opposite.
A pair of flycatchers nested this year in the eaves of our house in France. It was pleasant and amusing to sit on the terrace in the evening and watch the parent birds fly back and forth to feed the nestlings, having caught insects on the wing with their darting flight. The nestlings chirruped loudly for food as the mother or father bird approached, and for some reason we laughed at the sound.
Then one day a nestling fell out of the nest on to the terrace below. Although there are cuckoos around, I think it was an accident; the other nestlings continued their chirrups, and a cuckoo would have ejected them all, not just one.
The fallen nestling was quite far advanced in its development. It was covered in feathers not down, and its tail feathers were a russet brown in distinction to the rest of its body, whose feathers were grey-brown.. It could almost fly but not quite: when we approached it hopped away and seemed when it did so to keep itself suspended in the air by flapping its wings a little longer than just a hop would have enabled to do. It was like watching an avian re-enactment of the Wright Brothers’ first experiments.
We at once became fond of the little bird and anxious for its future. It was an appealing creature with bright little eyes and a solemn expression. All those insects brought by mother and father bird had made him (or her) quite rotund.
We are not ornithologists, my wife and I, and therefore not well-versed in the habits of flycatchers. Sometimes the little bird would hop into the house and perch on the bottom bar of a chair, chirping not cheerfully, as it had sounded in the nest, but with something between melancholy and desperation. It wanted, presumably, to draw its parents’ attention to its plight, to let them know its whereabouts so that they could continue to feed it. (Can a bird truly be said to ‘want’ anything?) If it was not fed, presumably it would die quite quickly.
When we approached it, it hopped back out on to the terrace, where there was a greater chance that its parents would see and hear it. But we had no confidence in bird brains: birds perform seeming miracles such as migration across half the world, but unthinkingly, inflexibly, because, like Luther at Wittenberg, they can do no other. Faced by a new situation, such as a fallen fledgling, they are not very adaptable—or so we imagined.
We knew, of course, that Nature is red in tooth and claw and that fledglings die by the thousand or the million every season. They fall out of nests and are crushed; they are predated by snakes and rats and weasels, and even by other birds of their own species, and that therefore our fledgling flycatcher was of no special significance in the larger scheme of things. But we all live in small rather than large schemes. The abstract knowledge was entirely vitiated by the plight of this one bird, whom we at once invested with personality and suffering. As Stalin said, admittedly in another context, one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.
There was nothing we could do, however, to persuade it of our good intention. As in politics, so in Nature: there are no friends, only interests. Natural selection had programmed the little creature to regard all others as predators and all out cooing and reassuring words failed to change its attitude towards us. I suppose that if we were approached by a creature several hundred times our size we too would not be much reassured by its expressions of goodwill towards us, even if we could understand them.
We wanted to feed the bird so that it should not die: but on what? We thought that it was not very far from independence, so our attentions would be necessary only for a day or two, a few days at most. My wife thought we might put a shallow bowl of water or of milk before it, but I said that I thought birds did not drink, certainly not milk: milk, after all, is mammalian. She also tried scattering some muesli before it, in the hope that it might be tempted to peck at it, but I said that I did not think that flycatchers ate muesli, not even the organic variety, as this was, left behind by some guests last year who were more concerned for the state of their bowels than the aesthetics of their breakfast and feared that we did not have a rigorous attitude ourselves to the healthiness of our diet.
Do flycatchers eat muesli? The answer appeared to be no, as I always thought it would be. Flycatchers eat flies, they don’t catch flies for the sheer fun or pleasure of it. So my wife began to gather some insects, with which our house and garden are plentifully supplied. The problem is sometimes not so much to catch them as to avoid them: if you are not careful, they get in the fruit and the sauce and the wine. We feel none of the tenderness for them that we felt for the fledgling, except perhaps for the type of large beetle that somehow gets on to its back and cannot right itself: those we give a helping hand.
There are more varieties of insect, however, than of any other kind of multicellular creature (the insects, though not necessarily meek or humble, shall inherit the earth). The insects that we caught for our fledgling did not tempt it, and its beak remained resolutely shut when we held one before it, or even put one on the ground before it. You can lead a bird to a bug, but you can’t make it eat. We realised that, because of our ignorance, we should have to let Nature, red or not in tooth and claw, take its course.
In fact, the parents birds seemed to take an interest in their fallen fledgling. Whether they actually fed him we could not see, because as soon as they noticed our presence they flew off, but they landed near it as they had not landed before. Perhaps the whole situation had been a normal one (for flycatchers), and not an incipient tragedy as we had assumed. Perhaps the story will end happily, with the fledgling reaching maturity thanks to continued feeding by its parents (assuming that an adult flycatcher’s life is a happy one). We do not like to think of the alternative: the picture of the sweet, solemn little bird is before our eyes. At least there are no cats locally to have preyed on it.
The story illustrates how quickly and easily we may become sentimental, and how that sentimentality may lead to incontinent benevolence. I remember reading somewhere that seemingly orphaned fledglings should be left alone at least for several hours until it is established beyond doubt that they have been abandoned to their fate, for trying to help them can actually harm them and cause the very abandonment that such help is intended to rectify. But fools—ignorant, benevolent fools—rush in where angels—knowledgeable, experienced angels—fear to tread.
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