By Keith Michael
“Are corgis naturally fat?”
Millie and I squint into the late-afternoon September sun at our inquisitor—nonplussed. Well, Millie is actually sitting and looking up with a smile as though the question was: “Would you like a treat?” There you have it.
Corgis seem to inspire repartee on the street, and, quite frankly, I love the conversations that ensue while walking Millie. Though, if any of you have had the pleasure, you know that Millie interrupts all too soon with her barking. Is it jealousy of my divided attention? (Parenthetically, I’ll sprinkle several of the memorable “openers” throughout this article.)
Oh, yes, the birds. Mockingbirds are my favorite neighborhood birds. There. I’ve said it. Good thing that birds can’t read, so let’s keep “my favorite” as our little secret. (“Looks like he’s walking you!” The lack of a non-gendered personal pronoun always makes for a rocky start.)
It’s not that I don’t love the super-star avian rarities that have appeared above the West Village streets as a one-day, or one- minute, wonder; or that every time I walk out my front door I don’t hope to see a Cardinal or a Blue Jay singing from a top branch in perfect Technicolor morning sunlight. Seeing a Red-tailed Hawk or Peregrine Falcon soar over Perry Street gives me a thrill, and a Raven croaking will probably always fire me up to jog around a corner to catch a glimpse of this transient fellow. Yes, the “common” Robins and Mourning Doves and House Sparrows and Starlings, who keep the streets and the air lively, entertain me on every walk. And you’ll still see me on street corners in May staring up into leafing-out branches with my binoculars, fending off a strain in my neck, hoping for a few-seconds sighting of a migrating parti-colored Magnolia or Blackburnian Warbler. (“He looks like a fox.” Cliché.)
Still, when I see a Mockingbird, their feisty shenanigans never cease to amuse and enthrall me. And, they’re handsome: bright eyes, soothing gray with flashy white patches on their wings, and white outlining their tails which they use to theatrical advantage in defense, courtship, foraging, and, as I interpret it, just the pleasure of showing off. (“Looks like HE don’t miss a meal.” Really?)
A street sign, a traffic light, a lamppost, a cornice, a TV antenna (yes, there are still TV antennas in the neighborhood), a water tower, a chimney, or a fire escape railing—each of these can become a stage for this fellow’s flamboyant performance. Mockingbirds seem to like the largest audience possible and the most prominent vantage point. Though it would seem like the impressionist’s ruse for which they are famous wouldn’t work quite so effectively if other birds can actually SEE them. (“Is he ALL corgi?” Do you want to see her birth certificate?)
One theory about why the mocking behavior is successful for the clan (individual birds have been recorded having nearly 200 bird calls in their repertoire that they reel off on a “shuffle,” sometimes for hours of vocal pyrotechnics) is that it tricks other birds into thinking that a territory is already occupied, not only by Mockingbirds but by many other birds as well. (“Is that the Queen’s corgi?” Well, yes I am.)
At this time of year, I always look to the water tower finials for a Mockingbird putting on his metronomical show in the sunlight. He struts, tail held at a jackknife angle, head thrown back tossing off an improvised aria, and every 40 seconds he’ll launch himself into the air in a barnstorming display of his white wing patches, twisting and turning, only to alight again, and repeat the performance for the next admiring crowd. (“Where’s the rest of his legs?” Ha. Ha. Ha.)
THWAK. THWAK. Ah, there’s a Mockingbird chick nearby demanding in a dozen languages to be fed. NOW.
“Looks like Millie’s slimmed down!”
Well, yes she has. Thank you very much.
For more information about New York City WILD! nature walks, photographs, or books visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com.