Something to look forward to… In this case, your memory of the future is being evoked by this image of a pleasant day in 2021 along Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Loyola Park.
(Swept up by tornadic winds in a violent thunderstorm, the vacant boat dock was shattered and deposited in a rain of debris miles inland where storm spotters had to explain what they meant when they reported: “It’s raining buoys!”)
For some circumstance, for some reason, birds have not been much on my radar this spring, but I did not notice this until I began opening my windows in the face of our pleasant heat wave this May. It was quiet in the morning. Too quiet. And thinking back on it, April and March had been the same. This is the season when many birds sing out on the common themes of sex, real estate, and aint-i-wonderful. It’s a great racket, as any male will tell you if candid.
Now, I’m not a birder, for all that I like birds, albeit some birds more than others, and so I’m not adept at recognizing who’s who, even if one were an owl. But something was obviously missing.
It’s the chimney swifts. For all the years I’ve been living in this apartment, there’s been a perennial colony that populated the courtyard and the parking lot across the alley. They are noisy, quarrelsome birds whose musical twitter masks dominance games, though for insects it probably sounds like the boom of doom, as if painted by a targeting sonar. They are not totally absent (in fact I hear a few as I type) but they do not occupy the space as they did. The local swifts displayed an intimate knowledge of the courtyard and lot. These chimney swifts lately do not; they ain’t from this neighborhood.
Their absence makes me wonder what else is missing. Fewer robins, perhaps? Or starlings? There did seem to be the usual crew of sparrows that hunt for spiders along the corners of brickwork and windows. But the near absence of chimney swifts may be influencing my perceptions.
The good news is that for a second year, the nighthawks are back. For more than a decade, they were largely absent from my little part of Rogers Park. These are probably the common nighthawk, judging by their electric squawks. I’ve always found the sound of them at night to be a comfort, for some reason. They do seem to be starting their hunt for insects a few hours before sunset and continuing on for several hours after sunrise. Is that new? I’m not a birder; don’t ask me.
Oh! And I did see a pair of purple martins in the parking lot a few days ago. They were a childhood favorite. I grew up with a large yearly colony in my back yard.
There are also a few unknown songs in the neighborhood. Not being a bird nerd, I haven’t the foggiest… One sounds truly tropical… Is it even a bird?
Why, I might be a proud parent, expect of course, I am not. There’s nonetheless an urge to be paternally proud at having seen two trees grow into a healthy adolescence, of a sort.*
This year has been particularly fine. It hasn’t been unusual for the trees to abruptly explode into blossom, a floral tribute to youthful drama, perhaps. But aptly enough it is usually a messy affair with a shadow of pedals like dandruff downwind and blossoms sickly aged from white into browns and ashen grays. Instead, the blossoms came quickly but remained. A steady breeze removed any accumulation of fallen pedals and removed them from the trees as well so that it seemed the blossoms were changing from white to green rather than falling away.
Calling the two trees “stately” would be a bit premature, imho, but compared to when they were first planted! Well. One could hardly call them trees. “Bush on a stick” would better resemble them though sparrows were heard to opine that they preferred actual bushes, thank you. And they were not alone in their judgement. A variety of foraging creatures bemoaned the lack of canopy. Still, the two were sweet, never failing a spring blossom.
This could not be said of the three trees these two had replaced. The previous trees had been of some endemic weed species that had grown into a dangerous hatred of the pedestrian. They had the habit of dropping sometimes sizeable, earthshaking branches, for the surprise value it seemed. Trimming them didn’t help. Sooner or later they were going to score a hit. They had to go.
I suppose the weed trees added some excitement to life, but that isn’t why I was sorry to see them go. If I loved them, it was for their canopy. It offered some security to creatures making a living from foraging. It offered a place to rest for creatures passing through.
Once, with the weed trees, a bald eagle stopped for a spell. It surveyed the street below that held more than a couple of small dogs protected by their leashes. It let out a horrific screech that surely got my attention but was uniformly ignored by the dogs and their humans on the street. The squirrels were nowhere to be seen. I swear they had advance warning of the visit and disappeared some fifteen minutes prior.
So what was my point, anyway? I think it was to share this spring’s graceful beauty and the context that provided some particular flavoring. It seemed to last forever with an echo…
*”expect” of course is a typo but delicious enough that I’m keeping it, thank you.
The pigeons were having a bad morning. It was a smallish flock but they swirled above the trees, above the courtyard and out of sight to return back looping and dodging and dancing in a running, fleeing ballet. They were terrified. A raptor, a big one, possibly a osprey, I don’t know: I didn’t see it, but it almost got Dick — as if being in the presence of a monstrous eating machine were not terrifying enough.
Dick was an older, genial pigeon and he was good. He was often the first to spot a predator. He was fast, agile and attentive to the flock, so much so that the others gave Dick slightly more regard than they gave to his neighbors and so he would often end up its lead choreographer. Like many male pigeons, he was a bit full of himself when it came to the ladies, but Dick always had been a comely lad. If you had to lay an egg, you could do much worse. But an osprey almost ate him.
It wasn’t just fear that lit the pigeon afterburners — and believe me, they were moving at a lively clip. It was also pride. Dance is an integral part of being a pigeon. It isn’t just a means of individual expression but a way of making communal decisions. And of enforcing them. For dance is also a means of defense. Predation is often a dance move, usually coerced by the predator, who relies on a repertoire of coup de mains for quick kills; for as hangry as it may be, it doesn’t want a fight or even an uncontrolled collision. These can have consequences for the predator too. Yet even when the flock is not successfully maneuvered by the raptor, the flock will sometimes sacrifice one of its less well regarded members, maybe a no longer entertaining bully but more likely some one unaesthetically sick or disabled or incompetent or even just a stranger. Rock doves are pacific and artistic birds encumbered by deep and ugly intolerance adapted to a world where every one is a critic and “thumbs down” is more than a critique’s rhetorical flourish.
But an osprey almost ate Dick. The nerve of this cannibal ave, this discredit to the Pandionidae, this flying spawn of satan, this barbarian theropod! Nasty m___________! They flew fast and low with tight acrobatics, not just in fear but in a defiant exhilaration: “You think you’re that good, osprey? Show us some fancy dancing coup de main. Show us if you’re really hungry. Show us what you’ve got.”