Millie is begging for a duck breast chew, which will, thankfully, keep her quiet while I write (and re-write) this article, but will also keep her chubby (in that corgi laying-in-provisions-for-the-winter sort of way).
Hardly a harbinger of holiday comfort and joy, it seems like I had contact with an inordinate number of “accidental birds” this fall—both the quick and the dead.
Birds migrating from their summers raising families further north face an endless gauntlet of dangers on their dash south for the winter: being eaten by a hawk, starving if there’s not enough food along the sometimes thousands of miles route, getting blown off course by bad weather, succumbing to exhaustion (smaller-than-a-teabag hummingbirds fly non-stop over the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan—so if they haven’t had their Wheaties…hummingbirds don’t swim). But far and above all of these daunting obstacles: running into stuff that people build.
Our tall buildings with their lights inside and glass walls outside are seemingly irresistible. Unfortunately, colliding with an invisible wall, like frozen air that just looks like more sky, if you’re lucky, just knocks you out and then you recover to fly another day. But if you’re unlucky (which is the more frequent scenario) you get ignominiously swept off the sidewalk with nary a rest-in-peace benediction. Maybe birds haven’t gotten the memo: Don’t text and fly.
Buildings with glass at the sidewalk usually have decorative decals or etching on the glass because, apparently, people have the same difficulty seeing walls of frozen air as birds do (but people have lawyers who will sue because it wasn’t a revolving door). Those same suing people would probably reply, “Buildings have been tall for over a century, why don’t birds learn not to run into them?”
Among the unfortunate slow learners that crossed my path this fall (or, rather, failed to cross my path) were one each of Winter Wren, Wood Thrush, Flicker, and Sapsucker, four White-throated Sparrows, two Juncos, another Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Common Yellowthroat, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (no Gulf of Mexico crossing for her).
I sigh. Millie sighs. We should all sigh. But there were a few happier endings.
Millie was with me when I came upon my first hand-held bird of the season. It was morning on Washington Street and there on the bench outside the soon-to-debut Upholstery Store was a spotted-breasted russet-tailed Hermit Thrush lying on its back, feet to the sky—not a common position for a Hermit Thrush sighting! It was still breathing, so while Millie scouted around the planters, I scooped up the thrush, warmed it in my hand, and felt the need to stroke its tawny head. This must be a hard-wired human gesture of endearment; surely a Hermit Thrush has no need to be stroked in this way. Eventually though, it revived and fluttered. I opened my hand. It hopped out and stood on its own in the planter. When I circled back around the block with Millie, it was gone, so I like to think it was again on its way.
Bird #2 was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet that had a tête-à-tête with the uptown glass at The Juilliard School where I work. Millie wasn’t along this time (she gets enough vocal, drama and dance training at home). Same drill: warmed him in my hand, unnecessarily stroked his head, took the opportunity to coax out the tiny ruby-colored topknot feathers of his namesake. He too could finally stand, so I tucked him away out of the only-a-minute-until-first-class stampede—and later watched him fly away toward Central Park.
A few days afterward, I was alerted to a third downed bird mere moments after hanging up with a friend calling from midtown desperate to know what to do about a stunned Woodcock found huddled against a Fifth Avenue building during morning rush hour. Happily, talking her through the warming routine also worked on that knitting-needle-nosed dumpling of a bird, and once deposited in Bryant Park for the rest of its convalescence, I could attend to my Bird #3: a Black-capped Chickadee.
If you’ve ever watched a Chickadee’s unstoppably cheerful hyperactivity, seeing one unnaturally motionless in my hand after a window crash, then slowly, like speeding up a film, return to real “chickadee-time”, fluff out, perch on my finger as though I were a favorite tree, and fly off to forage again in a golden Honey Locust—well, it was thrilling.
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