Monday, May 22, 2006

A bird's life

by Patty

I’ve never considered myself a bird person. I know only one bird personally. His name is Rocky and he lives with my friends Larry and Sue. It’s a great gig for him, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about wild birds and what their lives are like. Oh sure, on the surface they have it good. They have summer and winter homes, and they don’t have to go through airport security to fly to Omaha (where I’m headed on Wednesday for a mystery conference called Mayhem in the Midlands). On the other hand, birds have to forage for food and they have to deal with that pecking order business, which has to be stressful.

I started obsessing about birds a couple of weekends ago. I was sitting around a breakfast bar eating Danish and drinking lattes with three women friends when the subject of bird flu came up. We had all been born in different states, but two of us had relatives who died in the 1918 flu pandemic. During our discussion, the pharmacist painted a doomsday scenario with the virus spreading from human to human with millions infected and a shortage of vaccine. The former schoolteacher hadn’t been following the story. The executive and I were concerned but not panicked. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a bird person, but it troubled me that bird lives were about to get even more complicated.

I’ve had several bird run-ins over the past few years. The first happened as I was working in my office. I heard a thump coming from the direction of the kitchen. I went to investigate and saw a wispy feather trapped in the middle of a splat mark on the glass of my French door. Outside, a sparrow lay on the deck. His neck looked all wrong, twisted and limp. I opened the door and bent over to have a look. He was stunned but still alive. I ran cold water on a washcloth and pressed it against his forehead, hoping to revive him. When that didn’t work I ran to the telephone and began calling every animal assistance number that I could locate. A woman at a bird rescue agency gave me marginally comforting advice: leave the bird alone. If he’s able to fly away, he will. By the time I’d hung up and returned to the deck, the sparrow was gone. Did he fly away or did the neighbor’s cat…I didn’t want to go there.

A year or so ago I was in the middle of the San Pedro Channel, sailing from Catalina Island to Marina del Rey. It was winter, cold by Los Angeles standards, and I was draped in layers of clothes that made me look like Nanook of the North. I was nibbling on a potato chip when a little yellow warbler landed on the boat’s lifelines. His fragile bird feet grasped the lines in a death grip. He teetered there for what seemed like forever. In a lull between gusts, he flew under the dodger to catch his breath. I looked up to see if his compadres were flying overhead, but he was alone and determined to hitch a ride back to the mainland. I offered him a chip. He declined and flew away, buffeted by the wind. A moment later he was back. For several minutes I spoke to him in my Barry White voice, the one that always made Tigger-boo-the-wonder-cat flutter his eyelids in bliss. The warbler responded by hopping onto my knee.

He sailed with us for a long time before becoming airborne again. This time he didn’t come back. When I got home a bird person told me that warblers were land birds, so if mine was in the middle of the channel he had been separated from his posse and he was probably sick. I imagined him struggling against the wind, looking for land until his little wings...not something I wanted to think about.

A couple of days ago I was stopped at a red light when I saw a pigeon hop off of the curb and into the crosswalk. I laughed, because birds may use crosswalks in your neck of the woods, but even in L.A. that’s an unusual sight.

The left turn signal was due to change at any moment. A line of seven or eight cars waited, with an SUV in the #1 position. I expected the pigeon to tire of the sideshow and fly to the other side of the street, but he just kept marching across the boulevard. I thought hurry up, hoping he could read my thoughts, but he maintained a herky-jerky head-chest-feet kind of steady action. Oh man, I thought. He can’t fly. If he could he would.

The light changed. The SUV began a wide arc to the left toward the crosswalk, picking up speed. The pigeon was barely halfway across the street. He wasn’t going to make it to the other side in time. My heart pounded. I honked my horn, hoping to startle the pigeon into action. No soap. I rolled down my window and shouted “Hurry up!”

Head-chest-feet. Head-chest-feet.

The SUV barreled through the intersection. I gestured toward the crosswalk hoping to get the driver’s attention. She was too busy talking on her cell phone to notice. Her gas-guzzler was now only a few feet away from the pigeon. I wanted to scream, NOOOOOOOOOOOO! I’d wanted Tucker to say that in a scene in COVER YOUR ASSETS, too, but a couple of members of my writing group told me it was too corny, so I took it out. But that was writing. This was life.

I slapped by palms to my ears, leaned out the window and shouted, “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” The bird took one heroic leap onto the curb just as the SUV’s tires brushed his tail feathers. The driver never noticed the near collision, and the bird continued his steady march down the sidewalk as if nothing was amiss. I didn’t want to think about what happens to a pigeon that can’t fly. There were too many bad-news stories in bird land already. It was comforting to know that on that day and at that moment at least one pigeon had dodged the bullet.

ON ANOTHER SUBJECT: a footnote on commenting.
I want to address an important issue that “our Jacqueline” raised in her Friday blog. If you are out there lurking on NakedAuthors and want to comment but don’t know how, here’s how it’s done: (1) at the end of our posts, you’ll see the word “comment.” It’s in red and it’s underlined. Click on it. (2) On the left side of the page you’ll see comments left by others and on the right side a blank text box where you can post your comments. (3) Before you type in a message, click on the phrase “No Blogger account? Sign up here.” It’s located below the text box. This allows you to designate a name to attach to your comment. That’s it. No further obligation. (4) Fill in the requested information. The “display name” is the name that will appear on your comment post. Each time you sign in after that you’ll type in the user name and password that you have set up. Then type your comments in the text box on the upper right side of the page and press “post.” Easy, huh? Try it. It’s fun.


  1. Mornin', Patty! I love the bird stories.

    (watching the sparrows heckle the ravens up north here by the GG bridge)

  2. An extended family of ravens have taken up residence in my neighborhood. It's positively Hitchcockian. Send in the sparrows.

  3. I have one little brown bird who likes to wander into the house while I'm writing. Must be all the crumbs on the floor?

    LOVE the picture of that little guy sitting on your knee... I hope he made it across!!!

  4. Cornelia, I love the image of a little brown bird nibbling cumbs at your feet as you write!