By David Howlett. Thanks for being our guest at BCC, David!
In early June, I drove to Nauvoo, Illinois to teach an intensive three-week history course to the Community of Christ summer guides at the Joseph Smith Historic Sites. I soon made the acquaintance of an angry resident who lived near Joseph Smith’s Mansion House on Water Street. Walking from my apartment in the William Marks’ residence to the Community of Christ Visitor’s Center, I felt my hair brushed by what I thought was a large insect. To my surprise, I was being buzzed by a rather upset black and red-orange bird. Twice it buzzed me as I walked past its roost in a tree standing in the Mansion House yard. My experience was not unique. As I ventured into the visitor’s center, I found that my feathered pursuer had done the same to every one of the staff who venture to walk past its roost. The bird did not simply pick on lone wanderers like myself; it also attacked tour guests in large groups.
As a scholar-in-training who reads far too much in his subject area, I knew nothing about the species, gender, or protection status of the miscreant bird. However, after consulting the local Community of Christ staff and an online guide to Illinois birds, I found that our culprit was a simple red-winged blackbird–common in every way and considered a pest by some. According to the Illinois Natural Resources Information Network, red-winged blackbird males are extremely territorial and defend their territories “with aggressive defense, using song, displays and chasing, and protected their realms against other species as well.” In addition, the “species [is] polygamous in most cases.” Hmmm…an aggressive, territorial, polygamous male from common roots. Well, this is Nauvoo, after all!
As the weeks passed, the red-winged blackbird became increasingly bold. Things only escalated when an unnamed Community of Christ guide tried to scare the bird off by tossing rocks at it. (This unnamed guide had obviously not consulted the Community of Christ’s mission statement that proclaims, “We promote communities of love, hope, joy, and peace.”) Now the bird’s temper was up. It switched tactics from buzzing guests to hitting them with its body. A few amused guests would whip out their digital cameras and shoot pictures of the bird; others literally ran screaming toward the visitor’s center. Contemplating the bird’s actions, I wondered whether our fiend was seeking a “quest for refuge” or a “quest for empire”? The latter appeared to be true as the male blackbird began harassing guests who not only walked under its tree, but also those who walked on the other side of the street. In one instance, it attacked the father of a Community of Christ employee fifty yards from the Mansion House. The bird’s territorial influence was growing. A few harried guides began driving to work (I kid you not). Something clearly had to be done. As I left Nauvoo in late June to teach in Kirtland, the situation remained unresolved.
I vaguely remember reading a reference given by an LDS general authority that counseled people to “please do not hurt the birdies.” This piece of conservation advice was probably sound in our Nauvoo crisis. According to the same Illinois Natural Resources site as I previously consulted, red-winged blackbirds nest from May to early July; by late summer, they clump together in large groups and by October, they migrate to fairer fields where they can live in peace. In addition, the species is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Despite this protection, apparently Ohio residents eliminate the species from their fields with “shooting patrols and acetylene exploders.” Yikes! Perhaps this management practice is a bit too overzealous. After all, our aggressive fiend was simply our misunderstood friend trying to live out its measure of creation.
As I wrote this entry, I called my friends in Nauvoo to learn the status of our mutual acquaintance. It seems that after I left, the red-winged male found a different tree and then disappeared from sight. No further attacks were reported. Ahhh….so violence, in fact, does not solve all problems. (Take note of that, unnamed, rock-throwing Community of Christ guide!) In a bizarre reprise of sorts, our Nauvoo site director, newly arrived in July from Kirtland, Ohio, has been fending off a pesky barn swallow on his front porch. It seems as if the swallow is given to the same dive-bombing habit. So . . . when you visit Nauvoo, watch out for the birds.
Okay, so this story does not lead to a brilliant insight or question, but I am very interested in how pilgrims experience a sacred site and how they interact with site interpreters. What parts of site interpretation or site presentation has enhanced your visit to a Mormon sacred site (CofC or LDS)? What has been a pesky annoyance (like our feathered friend)? Please don’t worry about offending me. No holds are barred, and you can take your gloves off on this one.