Several years ago I saw a flightless cormorant drying its stubby wings while perched on barren seaside rocks in the Galápagos Islands. Using the image of that bird, some facts and a hefty dose of my imagination, I've sketched out answers to the question of what a first bird looked like and how it acted in the form of an avian Twilight Zone episode.
My half-hour script, to be filmed in black and white, opens on a rocky shoreline backed by low cliffs, against charcoal gray clouds in a red dawn, nearly sixty-five million years ago. It was then that the earth collided with a meteor, sending clouds and ash over the planet causing the mass extinction of animal life. I believe that a small dinosaur survived that catastrophe and began the slow process of evolving into a prototype cormorant, a diving and fish-eating bird.
The camera would focus on a lone human time-traveler at the dawn of avian life. The person is watching smooth rocks on which are nests made of seaweed, grass, and twigs. If our observer had just a rudimentary knowledge of what modern cormorants looked like, the creatures that he would be about to see would be eye-openingly odd. They would have evolved into the most elemental form of bird life from their dinosaur origins but would not yet look and fly like contemporary birds.
Rising from their bulky nests, making croaking sounds yet unchanged today, they are three feet tall, have wide oval bodies, long necks and large heads. They are black with a green or blue sheen to their feathers and barely resemble any bird he has seen before.
They are alert as they waddle along the shoreline on flipper-like feet. Some peck at the timeline's offerings. Others clamber into the shallow water and dive. A number of them take quick, short, clumsy steps, flap their short, scraggly wings furiously, launching themselves over small waves that roll gently in long lines over the shallow water. They fly for a few meters before making abbreviated ski-like landings on the water and swim short distances. Some dive with surprising agility, bending long flexible necks and bulky bodies while others just sink into the water. Shortly a few surface with crustaceans in their long bills, others with smooth skinned wriggling fish firmly gripped in their hooked bills. Some transfer the fish to the bills of fledglings in the water. Others masticate the fish and then fly ashore to transfer the food into nestlings' eager mouths.
In nests that still hold young, some adults, not yet capable of flight, guard against predators. They scour the rocks, especially vigilant for silent but lethal snakes or water-borne eels, for which nestlings make inviting targets. Suddenly the birds in the water start a running take off and launch themselves into the air while making loud croaking noises. Wasting no time they all return to their nests on the rocks, many to a mate and one or more fledglings. On the surface of the water a large swirl appears and quickly vanishes into the gently rolling ocean. It is probable that a very large fish took a diving cormorant by surprise. A half-hour later one adult leaves its nest, waddling slowly and awkwardly to the beach and stands alone looking out at the water for a long time.
Our observer would have been able to see a ritual courtship; the first time in history that a human being would see this act. A male cormorant flying with a freshly caught fish in its bill from a nearby inlet, comes in over a cliff top and tilts itself in the direction of a female he wishes to woo. He lands in front of a small smattering of seaweed and twigs and looks in her direction again. Interested she walks over to this rudimentary, "ritual plate" on which he puts down the fish. Look at what I can provide you with, the offering suggests.
He opens his bill to show her the notches, raises his tail up and down a few times to show her its power, and flaps his short stubby wings to display his new-age avian appendages. Even though he uses a hop, skip and jump method while furiously flapping his stubby wings to become airborne, he's not ground-bound, as are some others, but a new age bird. He can fly short distances not too far off the surface of ground or sea. He's something akin to a clumsy but functional WWI plane with a single prop engine that can't go too far, nor too high. But compared to other birds that cannot yet fly he's an attractive mate. She looks over the sheen of his feathers and his general physical condition. No longer dubious that he may be a one-shot wonder, she picks up the fish in her bill and holds it out to him. He in turn holds part of the fish in his bill. The two stand there, literally face to face for a minute and thus seal the deal.
As morning moves toward midday many birds return to their nests. Most of the birds stand on rocks where there are no nests and with heads slightly uptilted, their black wings spread, standing perfectly still. After a while our observer realizes that they have their backs to the sun and are trying to dry their wings whose feathers aren't waterproof. If he were able to get close enough to look at one of these proto birds in its bright green alert eyes he might find the bird curiously looking at him; the first bird ever to see a human being.
Then the camera would widen its scope, to see dozens, perhaps hundreds of such creatures milling about, sleeping, drying wings and eating. And we the audience would leave the scene as we found it, early in the morning, at the water's edge, at the dawn of avian life looking at creatures who had left their dinosaur origins and were beginning to look and act like birds as we know them to be.