"Daddy?" the little girl asked as she watched a streak of color burst from a tree. "What's the use of a songbird?"
Her father glanced at the bird in question, a vibrant cardinal preempting the onset of winter. The bird lifted a wing and began to preen itself. The father looked back at his daughter, and led her to a park bench, where they could look at all the birds flitting through the autumn trees.
"Well," the father finally replied, pushing his glasses a bit further up his nose. "I think the only way for me to explain is with a story." The girl beamed as her father began to weave his tale…
Once, long, long ago, before humans settled this land, there were two distinct kinds of animals, the Royal and the Common. The Royal animals had several gifts the Common did not, such as a communal language, heightened intelligence, and much larger stature. Now, because the Royal kind was more like humans than any other animal, they developed several human tendencies, especially the ability to fight between species.
Yes, they fought wars, but they were not like our wars. The battles lasted no longer than a day, and a victor would be declared in no more than a week. The wolves fought the elk, the bears fought the pumas, the foxes fought the raccoons, the eagles fought the hawks and falcons, and etcetera. But like humans, they also held accords, and in one such accord, the Royal carnivores all began to wonder why there were normal herbivores. You see, it was against the carnivores basest of instincts to kill and eat a Royal herbivore. But if they could kill any other herbivore, why should the Royals be exempt?
Some members of the raptor clans claimed they had eaten smaller Royal birds. One eagle claimed that the Royal songbirds tasted much better than a Common one. Not to mention, a gyrfalcon mentioned, there was more meat on the bones, and gave a heartier meal.
It started slowly at first, and to the Royal herbivores, it almost seemed like accidents. A fox would steal a Royal quail's egg, purely by mistake. A falcon would strike down a robin from above, mistaking it for a smaller bird. A pair of wolves would take down a sickly Royal elk, for it was weak, and could not keep up with its herd.
But slowly, over time, the killings became more and more bold. Now foxes would drag off a whole quail, and scarf it down before anyone was any the wiser. Wolves would take down stronger and stronger prey, leaving its entrails for the Royal carrion birds, chasing the Commons away with their gnashing teeth.
The bears and the raccoons and several other species that ate both meat and plants learned of these killings and wondered which side they fell under. To protect themselves and their kin, they informed the other plant eating Royal beasts of the carnivore's nefarious ways.
The herbivores kept their heads about them, however. The elk, moose, stags and goats fought back against the wolves and pumas, using their horns and cloven hooves as weapons. Many were cut down in these struggles, their bodies left to rot beneath the sun, picked at only sparingly by the Royal carrion birds.
The summer of the conflict was hot, and a drought soon began. The rivers slowed to a trickle, and the earth was parched. Fish flopped in dry riverbeds, and no animals came to eat them. Groups of animals discovered springs and hoarded the cool clear water, keeping it from their brethren. The weakest died of thirst. Those that were not big and strong were killed trying to get to water.
Later that year, locusts descended from the heavens and covered the land, devouring any plants still left in the open. The smaller birds refused to eat them, mocking the larger animals from their treetop refuges. The songbirds carried messages and food to the other Royal herbivores, who had retreated to the figurative, or in some cases literal underground.
The deer, elk and moose retreated to secluded groves in the dense forests, where even the locusts could not reach. They led their Common cousins into their labyrinthine haunts to preserve them, as well. The squirrels, mice and other small rodents followed closely behind the elks, gathering seeds and nuts into hollow trees, out of sight of the raccoons. Royal rabbits had reinforced Common burrows with secret escapes, and then retreated to their own warrens. The goats found refuge in their lofty mountain peaks, higher than the mightiest of eagles soared.
And through this all, the songbirds sang in the barren, lifeless trees "What is the purpose of a songbird? A robin, a finch or a dove? Who could ever miss a songbird? A cardinal, a jay or a gull?"
By autumn, the carnivores were starving and emaciated. The bears scratched at the ground, praying to find a withered root. The howls of wolves were mournful and weak. The foxes were nipping at insects, considering them fine dining. Raccoons climbed trees, seeking out any fruit the locusts might have spared.
The eagles and hawks and could flit only from branch to branch, no longer filling the sky with their magnificent wings. The carrion birds suffered as well, for the only food they could find were the corpses of the starved carnivores, no more than flesh clinging to bone.
Finally, a quick little finch brought word to the carnivores. The herbivores had seen the sufferings of the land, and could bear it no longer. An emissary form all the carnivorous species was sent to a clearing in a dead forest.
The carnivores glanced furtively at the trees, wondering what would happen next. Finally, the finch dove down from the sky, his belly full of seeds and berries to small for the bears and raccoons to find. "What is the purpose of a songbird?" he chirped. "A robin, a finch or a dove? Who could ever miss a songbird? A cardinal, a jay or a gull?"
The wolf snapped at him, but the finch leapt out of the way. He chirped again, and from the trees, the other herbivore emissaries emerged. The finch hopped up to the fox, and twitched. The little bird jerked his neck to one side, snapping it. The lifeless body fell onto the fox's paws.
A deer and an elk launched themselves from a rocky ridge and landed on their backs, snapping their spines. The rabbit bared its throat to the mountain lion. Sparrows and robins in the trees fluttered down to the eagles, hawks and falcons, inviting death.
Before the last sparrow died, he glared at the assembled carnivores. "Forget not our lesson, and our sacrifice," he sang. "We give our lives to the cycle, so that the world will not die because of our actions. You too must help repair the broken balance." His eyes fixed on each of them in turn. "Prey on us Royal herbivores at your own peril. We can revoke our gift of life at any time. Forget not the lesson of the songbirds." Then he too snapped his own neck and fell into the jaws of the wolf.
As the carnivores left the clearing to share the news with their packs and den mates, a great cloud of songbirds rose from the trees, soaring into the air. "What is the purpose of a songbird? A robin, a finch or a dove?" they chorused. "Who could ever miss a songbird? A cardinal, a jay or a gull?" The birds circled once, and then spread to all the corners of the world, to spread the news that the dark times had ended, and that the famine of the carnivores was over. They had finally learned the lesson of the songbirds. Everything in the world had its place, and it was not up them to tamper with that balance.
Through all this, the little girl had watched her father in attentive silence. Seeing the tale was over, she cocked her head to one side. "Where are all the Royal animals now, Daddy?"
Her father shrugged. "No one knows. Some say they traveled across the continent, and found some safe haven, far removed from the human eye. Others say they became part of the Common population, and that each animal is now a mix of both Common and Royal. And still others say that they never vanished at all, and are hidden in plain sight, still walking among us to this day."
The girl pointed at the cardinal, still sitting in the tree. "What about him, Daddy? Do you think he's Royal?"
Her father shrugged again and smiled. "Who knows?" He checked his watch. "Come on, we better head home. It's getting late."
As the two walked out of the park, the cardinal watched them go. He opened his beak and sang his song in a voice no human could hear. "What is the purpose of a songbird? A robin, a finch or a dove? Who could ever miss a songbird? A cardinal, a jay or a gull?"