Todays Walk: Birds of Sunset Cliffs

“Birds know themselves not to be at the center of anything, but at the margins of everything. The end of the map. We only live where someone’s horizon sweeps someone else’s. We are only noticed on the edge of things; but on the edge of things, we notice much.”

― Gregory MaguireOut of Oz

The birds of Sunset Cliffs live on the edge. For so long I walked along, barely registering them except to restrain my once young dog from chasing them over the rocks into the ocean.

img_20160915_064726972

Now that I’m on my own, they have moved from the periphery of my vision to the center. I look for the pigeons clustering along ledges in the cliffs. I watch for the flash white as gulls arc against the morning sky or see how close they will allow me to come before they leap off the edge of the rocks and dive to the water below.

The cormorants clustered on their own, proprietary rock just off shore,  sent me to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to learn why they were lifting their wings like Dracula preparing to swoop. Turns out, their feathers do not shed water. They are simply hanging themselves out to dry.

img_20160326_181834627_hdr

I’ve begun to notice that the gulls are the early risers although very few of them appear much before  six o’clock in the morning. The pigeons emerge later, usually by 7 at one of the parking areas where a man brings bread. By mid morning, on a sunny day, all are resting on the ground along the cliffs, occupying spots reserved apparently, through some kind of avian negotiation, for their own kind.

img_20160915_071848433

The pelicans command attention and resist my efforts to capture them on film while in flight. Many times, I stop walking and look up as a squadron passes overhead, chins tucked, wings barely moving, communicating so closely with the wind and each other that the rest of us are irrelevant. At rest, they are the guardians of the pier.

img_20151226_095403816

Once I started paying attention, I started to see the precariousness of their lives. I’ve seen three gulls with one leg. I’ve seen young pigeons lose crumbs of bread to bigger, fatter, more experienced birds. I’ve watched winter storms drench the cliffs, roil the waves, toss the littler ones around like confetti and I’ve seen day after winter day how the gulls and the pelicans stare at the white caps of a winter ocean waiting for it to calm enough to fish.

img_20160106_085212845_hdr

But I’ve also seen this: a pigeon couple courting and then coupling in the middle of long afternoon of blue sky and sun, seizing the moment and then turning as one to face the ocean and the sky and whatever the future holds.

img_20160915_170218

 

 

Intervention

IMG_0667

I don’t know what kind of bird this is, I don’t know its sex. All I know is that for five days it occupied my backyard, walking around among my herb pots with a bemused air, as if hoping any minute to find a familiar face or landmark. There was no visible injury, no reason that I could see that it wasn’t flying but there it was, grounded among my pots of parsley, basil, sage, mint.

We came upon one another early the first morning when I went out my back door to empty the kitchen compost pail. The bird scuttled out from beneath my pots and, thinking it was a rat, I almost spilled a few days worth of coffee grounds and veggie peelings all over my pajamas.

When I calmed down I realized that this bird was not even trying to fly away. It moved around like a chicken, keeping its eye on me and edging away if I moved too close but it never flapped its wings. In fact it seemed not to realize it had wings.

I zapped into rescue mode. There was no sign of injury but the bird was clearly young and vulnerable. She (?) would be no match for the cats who patrol my yard, the raccoons, bigger and meaner birds, or the coyotes rumored to be in our area. I would have to keep our terrier out of here. How would she eat?

Resentment reared its head. Why did she have to pick my yard? Where were her parents anyway?

While I stood there trying to figure out my next step, the bird settled on the edge of a pot of cilantro and stayed very still as if hoping I would just go away.

So I did. I confess, I was hoping that she would somehow be gone the next time I wandered through. But there she was that afternoon and, after a long night, the next morning. I called the local wildlife rescue folks and reached a man who sighed into the phone as he explained about adolescent birds. They are sometimes out of the nest before they are sure of their wings. It’s pretty common. When I went online in search of more answers, the folks on a Cornell site explained that adult birds liked to get their kids out of the nest and care for them in nearby locations because they were more vulnerable if they all stayed in one place. The man on the phone and the folks at Cornell said if there were no adults in evidence over the next few days, that the only step I could take would be to throw a towel over the bird, scoop her into a box and take her to the refuge where they would keep her.

I wanted her to be someone else’s problem. But every time I thought of tossing a cloth over her, holding that fragile frightened body in my hands, something inside me resisted. So I gave it one more day. Then another. Every morning it seemed like a miracle that she was still alive. She even took a bath in a little dish of water I set out for her. I got used to her. I looked for her. I kept our dog away from her. I went to bed every night thinking of her. Then on the fifth morning, I walked out, said “Good Morning,” and proceeded to water my herbs as I had done twice during her stay.

A beat of wings and she was suddenly on top of our fence looking down. I was struck dumb by a sense of deliverance. When I checked a little later, she was outside the fence, on a cement retaining wall near the compost. That night, she was gone for good.

What if I had intervened? What if I had chased her all over the yard with a towel, forced her into a box and then into a car? What if I had left her with people with much bigger problems to solve? In other words, what if I had tried to save her and made her suffer or, at the very least, complicated her struggle in ways I could not begin to imagine?

I blush to think how many times I’ve done this. In the name of friendship, motherhood, or trying to be a loving daughter, I have intervened, rushed to the rescue with advice, books, quotes, lectures, analysis, yes, analysis. I love to dig into the facts, research, and present people I love or even some I’ve just met (I cringe as I type these words) with tomes of information about their illness, family dynamic, emotional pain, along with hugs and an intense desire to show them a way out.

Someone else’s problems are irresistible to me. Just ask my husband. Or my son. Both have watched me kill perfectly good plants (even the indestructible mint) with too much attention, too much watering. Both have let me know, gently but firmly, when I cross the line from loving kindness into interference with them.

My bird friend came along just as I was penning a long letter to a loved one who is struggling right now. My chest had been tight for days about what to say, what not say, how to find the words that would somehow fix what I saw as his problem. I sent it but not before backing way off the analysis and advice and just letting him know what I saw and that I cared. In some way, I suppose, the earlier version of the letter was like the towel I was considering throwing over the bird’s head. I would be trying to scoop up my friend, hold him in my arms, fix his problem for him so he would be safe.

That’s not what the bird needed. It’s not what my loved ones need either. It’s not even what I need. The bird reminded me that sometimes the best we can offer each other is a little room to breathe and a friendly place to sit and figure things out on our own.

I’ll keep trying.

IMG_0655