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A Wild Bird, an Urban Song

Portico Magazine
Back Page Column
By Karyn Zweifel
July 7, 2008

Hed: Raining Feathers

alternate hed: A wild bird, an urban song

pullout quote: Its size, its ferocity, its strangeness infected all of us with a silent kind of awe.

Here was a bit of the wilderness on our doorstep, in one of the oldest residential areas of Birmingham.

One day last spring, it was raining feathers on our street. They floated down like a dream, like snow, and brushed against the windshield. But we were late for church and I resisted the urge to investigate. Three hours later, returning home, I had forgotten all about it, until a feather spiraled gently down past my nose.

I looked up. There was no angel hovering above me. The sky was clear. I tilted my head back further and scanned the space above, pacing slowly back and forth across the street. Fortunately our street has very little traffic. The neighbors probably took my odd behavior as additional confirmation that yes, I do belong in Southside. But I was determined to find the source of the small downy feathers. I couldn't think of any natural event that would cause a bird to lose its feathers that way, over such a long stretch of time. Once a neighbor threw a mattress out of a second-story window into a tree, but I didn't spot any airborne bedding that day.

The old walnut tree across the street had very few leaves in early March, but a wisteria vine had enveloped its trunk and branches, making its canopy dense, its interior indistinct. As I struggled to see, something appeared out of place. I stood still to let my eyes adjust. There was a talon tightly gripping a branch, huge and looking wickedly efficient. My eyes traveled further, picking out the form of a large bird. Suddenly I was pinned with the most predatory look I have ever experienced. Golden eyes gleamed coldly, then seemed to dismiss me scornfully. The bird lowered its head and used its sharp, hooked beak to shred the unlucky pigeon that had become its lunch.

It was the biggest bird I'd ever seen on our street, easily eighteen inches long with tail feathers a distinctive rusty brown. The red-tailed hawk stayed for at least another hour, the flurry of feathers gradually diminishing. We circled the tree with our binoculars and camera, quietly at first. It soon became apparent that no matter how much noise we made, the bird of prey was not going to fly away. Hawks don't scare easily. Its size, its ferocity, its strangeness infected all of us with a silent kind of awe. Here was a bit of the wilderness on our doorstep, in one of the oldest residential areas of Birmingham.

We have other reminders from time to time. Field mice sometimes come to visit; lizards sun themselves in the backyard. There is a narrow strip of woods and kudzu above 18th Avenue South and below The Club and other businesses on top of Red Mountain. Several times a year, a possum or two will wander down our way, its presence announced by our dog. Her "possum" bark has a puzzled note to it, and a wide streak of caution. She likes her possums safely up a tree. Mostly, they oblige her.

I spotted a fox one night, its eerie green eye reflection almost hidden by the underbrush. I have a friend whose front porch was crisscrossed with the tiny, five "fingered" pawprints of raccoons one morning. They came at night to steal the cat's food. It seems that the veneer of civilization we have manufactured is a bit more tenuous than we might think. Birmingham's wild side is in fact unusual for an urban area: we rank first in the country for green space, with 17.9 acres for every one thousand residents.

The 20-acre Railroad Park downtown probably won't be a gathering place for wild animals, but its eight blocks of green space interspersed with lakes, trails, entertainment venues, restaurants and an open-air market will be a treat for downtown office workers, families, walkers and joggers. The proposed Red Mountain Park will give the city a refuge of more than 1100 acres for hikers, bikers and any number of possums, fox, and, yes, red-tailed hawks. Book-ending the city on the east is a park to be proud of: Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve is larger than New York City's Central Park, and the second largest urban nature preserve in the country.

I haven't spotted another hawk on our street. But just in case I feel a little intimidated by our city's untamed edges, here's some small comfort. As I sat on my porch the other day, a mockingbird let loose a long string of its copycat melody. It ended with the unmistakable trill of a car alarm. The mockingbird has learned its urban song, and remains out of its predators' claws or talons. At least for today.