By Keith Michael
I’m outside of my usual West Village haunts, walking up Sixth Avenue from downtown. (Millie is at home, paging through the latest New Yorker to see if there are any cartoons or humorous bits about corgis.) This is hardly as far from my usual streets as was a recent overnight pelagic birding trip that I took out of Sheepshead Bay—an aquatic rollercoaster ride one hundred and thirty-five miles offshore to the Hudson Canyon, and back, to see birds who spend their entire lives over the ocean (Shearwaters, Storm-Petrels, Skuas)—but you’ll have to catch me at Left Bank sometime with a martini in hand for the whole story.
Seafarers or city-slickers, these mini-dinosaurs of the skies are resilient.
Just outside the firehouse at Houston Street, a Kestral startles me. He’s methodically foraging down the avenue, stopping off at the end of every T-bar cantilevering the traffic lights over the intersections: each a House Sparrow vending machine. This Kestral’s got street smarts! But after watching this orange-and-blue raider come up empty-beaked more than a dozen times, all of those sparrow families get fist-bumps from me for staying out of harm’s way.
In fact, I give props to the House Sparrows for moving into those T-bar condos in the first place. The House Sparrow, a 19th century European immigrant, is a dwindling species in their homeland, but here, maybe partially due to our excellent housing accommodations, they are doing just fine. They may be one of the most numerous birds on the continent.
I doubt that there was a Metropolitan House Sparrow Authority, with avian delegates from all five boroughs, championing specifications for the ideal Jetsons-futurist dwelling, but, remarkably, the city has provided everything needed for their safe, hassle-free, luxury living: private fly-in entrances, central solar heating, natural ventilation, local-sourced rainwater, street-side refuse disposal, non-discriminatory locations in every neighborhood, views! Okay, the downsides might be the inevitable noisy neighbors inherent in the two-family design, compromised air quality (not LEED-gold—installation at traffic intersections assures proximity to car and truck exhaust,) and the general traffic din might be considered a drawback—oh, and there’s that Kestral problem.
Turning up Bedford Street, a ubiquitous urban pigeon flock is training yet another devotee to toss them a constant supply of bread crumbs (clever!), and on hot summer days when all of the rain-puddles have dried up, I’ve noticed pigeons methodically snipping off our decorative begonias and impatiens, nibbling at the stems like refreshing ice-pops. Our windowsills, cornices, streets, and parks provide everything they need.
Passing by Chumley’s, I wonder if it will ever reopen.
Red-tailed Hawks are moving back to the city in record numbers, now that they’ve discovered the endless locavore and paleo possibilities of urban dining. Not to mention using their new-found celebrity status to keep the best housing. Pale Male has his Fifth Avenue Central Park views as well as a book, and sheaves of articles, written about him; the Washington Square NYU nest has even gotten its own reality series with 24/7 viewing of their intimate home life in addition to complimentary medical coverage for the entire family.
Edna St. Vincent Millay’s bird-centric What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why spreads (narrowly) over the sidewalk at 75½ Bedford Street.
Robins are content in our street trees and roof gardens. Mockingbirds have appropriated our car horns and ringtones for their singing repertoire. (Are they mocking us?) Canada Geese like our lawns so much that some flocks have deserted the age-old tradition of migrating, and now they just hunker down for the winter rather than visit their southern relatives. Chimney Swifts, of course, prefer our chimneys for housing. Perhaps a few of their country cousins still set up housekeeping in hollow trees, but they’ve been urbanized for centuries.
The Barn Swallow swooping down over the corner of Christopher Street has cajoled our forebears to name him after his favorite suburb—our barns—though for this fellow, “home” is probably a pier over the Hudson River. Peregrine Falcons, in lieu of their mountain-cliff aeries of yore, have colonized our skyscrapers and bridges.
Songster Cardinals and last month’s in-the-pink House Finches have commandeered our fire escapes and water towers as their concert venues of choice, while Blue Jays seem happy to scream blue-blooded murder from anywhere they please.
Turning down Perry Street toward home, I imagine Millie honing her own adaptive medieval corgi-wiles: to ask me for a treat and to demand to be taken out for a walk.
For more information about nature walks, books and photographs, visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com.