It began with an untimely death. I turned to find, lying on the floor of the warehouse, a European Starling, still and lifeless. It had been the holiday weekend, where in the United States we celebrate the life and mourn the tragic loss of one of America’s greatest heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The evidence was everywhere, on the floor. Telling the tale in clues that could be read easily by the most amateur sleuth. She’d probably entered on Friday, when crews were unloading trucks after a long week. Doing so in the brutal, bitter cold of a January day that would see temperatures below zero. In and out through the overhead doors, then a quick walk-through locking up. Set the alarm and they were bound for the long weekend, Monday a holiday. Unbeknownst to them, the Starling would be locked in.
Here the signs showed where she flew to the transom windows out front and perched. Looking out on a world that, perhaps, she was glad to be spared from. Single digit temperatures and double-digit winds conspired to drive temperatures, with wind chill, to twenty-five below zero over the weekend.
Here she perched on the iron I-beam as she peered out through the windows of the rear overhead door of the loading dock. Here she flew into the paint room, landed atop a piece of pipework, and looked out the six-light of the huge antique door. Out onto the stacks of pallets at the back of our building. This is our meeting place. Where I call with a whistle for my following of sparrows, and remind them that “Everyone is welcome!”. I call out to the crows, watch the Juncos now in winter, the mockingbird, the blue jays, as I shred and share a couple of slices of bread each morning and noon.
This is no doubt where Starling and I had met before. Where for the last decade, I have come to love their comical movement, their social graces, sharing with one another, with other birds. While the polite sparrows sit and nibble with elegant manners, starlings run about, stacking bits of bread in their beaks before flying off. Starlings are beautiful birds. Striking plumage in streaks and stripes, iridescent black echoing every color of the rainbow.
She was not in danger of slamming herself against the glass, as last year I went to each window in the place and added translucent stripes to make it visible to birds. Collide-Escape is the product I used, after watching, of all things, a starling knock itself nearly unconscious trying to fly through the sparkling clean portal. Dazed, he stood there on the warehouse floor as humans walked past. I brought him outside and set him down on his tiny feet on the front dock, in the shade. Twenty minutes later, he would fly off, hopefully good as ever.
Now, Tuesday morning, she lay dead on the floor. Three days locked within. I felt responsible for the death. In odd, gripping moments this would wash over me, as I reminded the child within of all those grownup things that are said at a time like this. Everything must die one day. It was an accident. It’s not your fault. One of so many starlings, how could she be missed? Nothing relieved my childish mourning for the tiny helpless creature. A creature that would now be alive if not for me, and mankind’s intrusion on her natural world.
I walked solemnly outside with the little corpse. Carried her, slowly and gently, to the brush line out back. The closest thing to natural and nature I could find for her. I placed her on a limb. A practice we call (pardon the outdated phrase) an “Indian Burial”. Here now she would return to the Earth from which her life sprang to begin with. She may become a welcome meal for a hungry scavenger, or perhaps decay and decompose there, mingling with the grass and the dust of terra firma.
I could not stop myself from returning to the back window. I consciously avoided looking directly at the place where she was enshrined. If still there, the little body would sadden me. If she was gone…somehow it seemed that would sadden me, too. As I looked out the window, the sky dimmed. Shooting over my head and then in front of my window, a dark cloud of a thousand starlings swarmed. A swiftly moving organic overcast. Darting this way and that in one gigantic choreographed ball of birds. They lighted in a tree at the edge of the back lot. I thought of a crow’s funeral. How crows will gather quietly at a place where one of theirs has fallen. They would not act like the gregarious, cackling mobs of their reputation, but would perch in reverence, one by one flying off in silence.
It was then I saw the Cooper’s Hawk, perched in an adjacent tree. On the hunt, looking for a meal. Another swirling flock transited the sky, and behind it, the hawk leaped into the air. With zig-zagging aerobatics, he charged into the black mass. A twist, a turn, a swoop, a dive, the incredibly agile bird flew through the frigid air. The hawk returned to the tree empty-handed, awaited the next opportunity. It was so cold outside, I thought, to fly so quickly through the air. It must be uncomfortable, to say the least, yet there was no choice if a hawk wanted to survive. To live. To thrive in this natural state. Conflicting thoughts slapped at me from either side of my brain. Oh, the poor starlings. I didn’t want to witness another killed today. Yet, there is the hawk, an equally admirable and well-liked avian friend. I did not want to hasten his demise either.
The thoughts would swirl around my aged and feeble brain for days. Perhaps I would find a place to leave a dish of water, in the event this scenario were repeated. Perhaps I could make some kind of hatch that would open to allow a trapped bird to escape. I still can’t stop thinking of the Starling, looking out the window at freedom. So close, and yet denied. The vertical Collide-Escape stripes on the windows looking like prison bars.
Another flock of starlings headed for the Gathering Tree. The hawk was airborne again.
“Everyone is welcome.” My heartfelt mantra seemed simplistic and shallow. I’m feeding the feral cat with a small dish, situated just thirty feet from the pallet pile that serves as dining table for the sparrows. How do those things reconcile?
There are no rules for such things. Cats will eat the sparrows. Hawks will eat the starlings. The cat lives and the hawk lives and the starlings live with this knowledge. I am trying to bring myself closer to their world. A world not bound by emotional ramblings and Disneyesque fantasy. Then I realize that I can be this me, and feel these things, and mourn for the starlings while cheering for the hawk. Really quite simple, if you don’t overthink it.
Everyone is welcome.
I guess that includes the sentimental, childish man who will give Indian burials to dead birds, feed feral cats, and feel sorry for the hawk in the cold.
We are, truly, all in this together.