by James McGirk
There is a junk store a few doors down from my house. Actually it isn’t even a store; it is just an alley with a tarp stretched over it and a chicken wire gate in front to protect the merchandise, which is mostly old furniture and baby things.
There used to be a guard dog chained to the gate. His name was Roscoe. I detest dogs, for the most part, but Roscoe wasn’t bad. He was beautiful. A pit bull with a pink muzzle and fur that was mostly white but had a faint orange hue. Roscoe was ferocious; terrifying, the streetlamp was out on his side of the street and at night he would hurl himself against the fence if you so much as looked in his direction, let alone walk past him.
During the day he was kept chained beneath a shady tree beside the gate. For three years he would snarl and bark at me every single time I walked by past him. If he was on his chain he would all but choke himself to snap at me. But I grew accustomed to the treatment and seeing him and there were times, admittedly not many of them, but when it was really hot and he was splayed out and panting or when his muzzle was protruding through the wire when I felt sorry for him.
And then one day he was gone. There was big piece chunk of plywood where he used to sit and the fence had an ominous gouge in it. I asked the owner what had happened to Roscoe. He was stolen. Someone had come by and snipped open the fence and pulled the howling, snarling, snapping thing out and stuffed him into the back of a van. They had it on tape. The police were called and they couldn’t do a thing. Roscoe was gone and considering what usually happens to stolen dogs in a rough neighborhood, he probably wasn’t alive for more than a couple of days.
To me dogs are disgusting, I think they are servile and slobbery and in a city like New York, something that should have been banned before something like bucket-sized orders of soda pop or shortening. But I felt awful passing by the junk store and knowing my noble, beautiful, if rather truculent neighbor Roscoe would never bark me at again. So, as a way of channeling my grief, I suppose, I resolved to catalogue the other creatures I interact with in my very urban environment.
The Red-Tailed Hawk
My office is on a hill, perched above a park. During meetings I face the window, and one day I noticed a large, sinister bird drift slowly past my window. Then I realized he was almost always there, cruising, raising the tip of a wing or spreading his tail feathers like fingers to twist or suddenly plunge down. Some days he sat still long enough that I could make out a reddish glint on his tail—and then, one day, I saw him hunched over something on a nearby ledge, his feathers scooped around something, mantling it, as he dipped his beak in and tore quivering hanks of something sinewy and red that had recently been alive. He was a bird of prey. There was a pair of red-tailed hawks nesting behind a statue of St. John the Divine on the church beside my office.
Eventually the hawk eggs hatched and three nestlings fledged and for a few of weeks the trees around my office were filled with the cries of furious teenage hawks shrieking for food until they realized that they too would have to fend for themselves and moved on to other churches and other office buildings to find mates and nests of their own.
Red Cardinals, Blue Jays and Bluebirds
Twice, I saw red streaks in the trees. Once, in a park on the banks of the Hudson River I saw what I thought was a red plastic bag caught high up in a tree until it spread its wings and fluttered up a few branches. The second time was in Ridgewood, as I glanced upward to feign nonchalance as an aging but muscular fellow in a leather waistcoat (perhaps a Devil’s Rebel?) wheeled a motorcycle into the road and I thought I glimpsed a white pit bull. My eyes connected with biker's. I looked awy and saw something rin the trees. And I thought red streak was a minute malfunction of my cornea but then my companion noticed it too. What terrible camouflage I thought, except perhaps for a few weeks in the fall, when the foliage explodes into color. The birds moved very quickly.
Occasionally I will also see a flash of bright blue. If the wings are mottled with white and the bird has a proud, defiant air then I am sure that I am looking at a blue jay. But once I saw a blue bird that wasn’t as defiant, it was practically slinking through the underbrush. This was could have bluebird. The grackles are said to be chasing them out. Although I didn’t hear it sing so I couldn't be sure.
Grackles, Starlings and Blackbirds
At lunchtime, I try to take a long walk to shrug off the hours of sitting in a dark room, crouched over a keyboard, editing a Law School’s alumni-related content. There are two nearby parks and both are filled with birds, mostly grumpy little creatures who squabble for territory and jostle for space and snipe for scraps flung from office lunch pails. (Actually these days, lunch pails are usually made of Tupperware.) For months I trouble telling them apart, so my companion sent me an ominous photograph titled BLACKBIRDS. The photo showed several taxidermied species lined up in order of size. The largest were ravens; the pure black ones who stayed in the trees were crows, while the ones with the little ruddy waistcoats were clearly starlings. The medium gloss black ones had to be blackbirds. But the majority were grackles, funny little birds who have wing feathers that shimmer like petrol spills and are said to have an uncanny intelligence. The males have tiny black frills and they seem too dignified to wallow in puddles of water, the way that pigeons and sparrows do shamelessly on hot days.
Green Herons, Ducks and Turtles
My companion’s favorite park is at the foot of a steep hill where my office is. At the bottom of a park filled with stairs is a small pond that is crammed with life. She calls it the Creature Pond. And it really is squirming with life. There are hordes of turtles swimming through the thick green muck that floats on the surface of the pond, and armadas of mallards, males with bright green heads and dun-colored females and tiny fluffy yellow ducklings who trail behind who gradually turn a safer color as the season progresses.
In a shady corner, one day, I noticed a strange, stooped shape that looked almost sickly. Research indicated that this was a heron. A few days later I was looking out of my office window, hoping to see the hawk when I saw a sleek, streamlined shape zip through the air. I believe it was the heron. But it could have been an egret.
The Flocks of Tame Pigeons
When I return home from work, the neighborhood pigeon tamers are exercising their flocks. I always take a moment to watch. For years I thought the circling flocks were migrating birds, but I read an article that said that they were tame. Once in the air the flocks do a sort of battle, they weave in and out of one another, like shoals of fish colliding and some of one flock will be persuaded to join the other and at the end of the night, when the trainers are returning their flock to their cages they count the bands around the legs of their flock and see how many birds have been lost or how many new members have been cajoled into joining. Usually pigeons prefer to flock with birds of a similar color but after a flocking fight a trainer might find blues among his reds or blacks among his speckled whites.
No one knows what goes on when two flocks collide. They don't fight so this must be a more subtle form of dominance and subversion. On the ground pigeons are very strange creatures, when they mate, they puff themselves up and seem to sumo wrestle one another for space.
When I stop watching the flocks circling overhead and walk home from the subway, I pass the fence that Roscoe used to hurl himself against. The weird triangular hole that he was wrenched out of still hasn’t been repaired. Tallying creatures is a poor substitute for the loss of my snarling neighbor, but it is all that I can do. I miss that stupid dog.