How I Chose an Avian Villain

Oak tree at sunset

This last week, I researched birds for the villain in my fairy short story.

Fortunately I don’t write for money; for several weeks of work, I can expect $0-$75, depending on where the story prints, if at all. Publications buying at  professional rates pay at least 5 cents per word.

Even if the story doesn’t sell to anyone, researching is worth the effort. That may seem crazy, but I guess that’s part of being a writer. My subconscious wants the story written, so I’m going to treat writing the story seriously.

Included in that seriousness is considering character details. If a bird’s in a story, then that bird better make sense. I don’t want the embarrassment of a reader–and avid birdwatcher–telling me such-and-such bird wouldn’t behave this way or be in that location. Plus, even readers who don’t know a chickadee from a crow might sense whether or not I’m BSing.

So, what did I need to know? Here are the criteria for the bird that attacks my fairy main character.

  • Lives in Oregon for some, if not all, of the year.
  • Perches in oaks, given a choice.
  • Visits human developments, like urban parks.
  • Catches insects in flight.
  • Is large and aggressive enough to target a creature with a 6-inch wingspan.
  • Hunts during wind storms, when necessary.

Those are challenging criteria, for the reasons listed below.

  • Oregon is not known for its biological diversity, so my choices were limited before I added more criteria.
  • Many large insect-eaters,  like jays, prefer conifers and so might not look for my fairy near an oak.
  • Many of the larger birds avoid places like urban parks.
  • Some of the birds I looked up tend to grab insects that are resting on something; or, like the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) and members of the Family Columbidae (pigeons and doves), they aren’t known to eat insects at all.
  • My fairy’s size, which is based on the size of Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) leaves in springtime, required at least 7 inches in an avian adversary. This is an estimate based on a picture of a juvenile tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor; ~5 inches) preparing to consume an adult Luna moth (Actias luna; 3-4.5 inches).
  • What bird in its right mind would hunt in windy conditions? Shorebirds are possible exceptions, but they don’t fit into the story.

Until late last night, I thought I would need to change the criteria or drop the attacking bird from my story. This distressed me, because each criterion was chosen to add drama and relevancy to the story. In addition, I had become attached to the idea of using the Purple Martin (Progne subis).

This large, territorial swallow grows to 7 inches, catches insects in flight, takes advantage of human offerings of protection, spends time in oaks, and breeds in Oregon, among other locations.

Most bird guides include that information. What I still wondered was what the purple martin does in strong winds. In a stroke of luck, I stumbled upon a chapter of e-book, Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, which explains how purple martins fly in wind storms.

Perfect! Well, good enough for fiction, and that’s what matters.


2 thoughts on “How I Chose an Avian Villain”

  1. I empathize. For my current work, some of the things I’ve researched are: hummingbirds, plant growth on the Central California coast, cultural and linquistic anthropology, financial investors, and so much on Iran that I fear the CIA will break down my door at any moment–and none of these are the central theme of my novel! But I feel compelled to get the details right.

    1. I had to laugh about the CIA comment, becuase I’ve felt the same way. I’m working (slowly) on a novel about an illegal special ops forces unit. Visiting certain Websites probably bump me up in the list of people to watch.

      Let me know if anyone does break down your door. Then, I’ll put up a sign saying, “Please knock. I’ll talk.”

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