By Keith Michael
It’s the morning circling of pigeons.
Millie is dilly-dallying around the corner onto West 11th Street, one reluctant corgi step at a time. Is the pigeons’ morning circling timed to our walk, or is our walk timed to the circling of the pigeons? Either way, it’s a daily fall spectacle. The “spectacle” is the Cooper’s Hawk long-tailing a few wingbeats behind them. I glimpse the roiling chase heading west over the intersection, but then the chimneys and cul-de-sacs of Westbeth obscure the view. One by one, the lucky stragglers flutter back down to a cornice edge. Somewhere there is one less pigeon. (Do pigeons wake with existential dread? “Good morning. Who will it be today?”)
I drop Millie off at home. She waits expectantly for a goodbye treat. I finish my coffee, and am out the door.
Now heading up Perry Street, hands in pockets, pondering my own uncertainties, I’m still scanning the sky for the comet tail of that Cooper’s Hawk or for a skulking Red-tail Hawk breaking a roof line. Mid-block, I happen to look down, and there on a brownstone stoop, is a handsome Yellow-bellied Sapsucker—black-and-white tail splayed, red forehead and kerchief, his neck bent against the balustrade—not a hawk breakfast this fellow, though fleeing a hawk may have driven him toward a hasty collision with a window, the likely cause of his demise. Sapsuckers are elusive at best, industriously camouflaged against the upper branches of trees doing their Morse code tap-tap-tap drilling for sap; their namesake “yellow belly” seems like a comic misnomer. But turning this guy over, there it is: a bright lemony yellow belly. Holding him carefully, I carry him to a golden bed of fallen Honey Locust leaves in the street to photograph his passing like the ritual of a 19th century wake (then give him respectful transport to the ivy at the base of a street tree). On to the rest of my day.
After getting off the subway, walking to work takes me happily through Lincoln Center Plaza with all of its aspiration. Though, unhappily, during the spring and fall bird migrations, I voluntarily detour past the entrance to the Library for the Performing Arts, its glass entrance canopy likely displaying the aftermath of window strikes from the expanse of glass above. Either drawn to the night lights, or enticed by the siren call of the daytime reflection of the bosque trees (“I thought it was just more sky…”), this fall, my count at this one spot has yielded Wood Thrush, Common Yellowthroat, Catbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Pine Warbler, two Juncos, and two White-throated Sparrows. I faithfully log these “fallen” on D-Bird, and write to New York City Audubon, but there are acres of glass at Lincoln Center, and all over the city, and around every city, and looking out on every backyard. Millions of birds (a billion?) die this way every year. It’s a conundrum.
After checking for any new silhouettes on the canopy (only the Pine Warbler is still there from last week), I head by the Lincoln Center Theater. Huddled in the angle between the wall of glass and the stone plaza is a dark shape. It is a bird. Standing. Panting (if that’s what you call this rapid open-bill breathing in a bird). My first thought is: It’s a Woodcock, but the eyes aren’t large enough, the beak not long enough, it’s too small and not chubby enough. Then it kicks in: This is a Virginia Rail!
I’ve only seen a Virginia Rail once—scurrying for a few seconds as I looked down from the boardwalk through a saltmarsh in Massachusetts. They’re tiny, smaller than starlings, with a rich orange front, white-and-black striped in the rear, a swashbuckling gray streak of a mask, long toes to keep them from sinking in soggy ground, and they are, indeed, “thin as a rail,” laterally squished for snaking through the tight spaces between reeds. They’re not particularly rare, or particularly endangered, but they’re notoriously difficult to catch a glimpse of, and yet, here was one standing—inches away—looking at me.
Already nearly late for my first meeting of the day: What to do? Camera poised, I reach out a slow hand to this fellow. He glares at me. He flutters a few inches. His steps are wobbly, but everything seems to be working. He’s a lucky one. Stunned, yes. Confused, yes. Running into a window wasn’t in his day planner. A little more rest, and I think he’ll be alright. I’ll get to work, take care of business, and return to check up on him.
A half hour later, I’m back. He’s still there. I do have time now to walk him to Central Park. Again, I offer my hand. More energetic fluttering than before, but not enough to resist my holding him quietly. Unbelievable how little he weighs, how little there “is” to this wandering bird who ended up in New York City on a Monday morning, in my hand, being carried two blocks to Central Park. He’s getting his feistiness back now. Pecking at my hand. Looking warily around. A long-toed foot clenches and stretches. Good.
We wait for the traffic light. Cross the street. Step through the opening in the Park wall. Grass. Trees. No glass. I open my hand. He steps out. Breathes. Ruffles. Flutters away.
On to the rest of my day.