The apartment complex where I lived ran their gray-water sprinklers at dawn and dusk during the warm seasons. Coming from a region where water is abundant and precipitation not infrequent, I first perceived this as wasteful. But after a little bit of time in this Southwest, I realized that if grass, trees, and flowers were to survive, irrigation was an essential. We could argue about whether the ecdemic grass, trees, and flowers themselves were frivolous, but I was glad to see them.
I wasn’t the only one who was happy about the sprinkler schedule. During my time in Albuquerque, I came to know the various types of birds that frequented the city. The pigeons, you’ve already heard about. They were ubiquitous–crowding city pavements, panhandling for crumbs at the cafes, and generally thronging wherever they pleased–dull companions, whose monotone burbling could not replace the music of the many song birds that live in the Southeast. I had few defined thoughts about these avian equivalents of static, except to lament that our culture rarely makes use of their abundance in the kitchen.
Thankfully, they were not my only feathered companions. Large numbers of tiny finches and sparrows lived in the city all year, huddling for warmth on the power lines during the bitter months. I would see them clustered in the shrubs around the Duck Pond on the UNM campus, almost completely devoid of any fear of humans. They were friendly, cheeky people, those birds, and while they fell into two or three distinct species, I lumped them under the heading of City Birds.
In the mornings, water from the sprinklers would collect in a respectable pool just where a handicap pathway cut across the grass from the main parking area. Here, the tiny birds would come to drink, bathe, and discuss their plans for the day. I took to sitting on my porch, watching their activities, and became something of a grudging morning person. While I would like to credit my love of tiny birds for this, it had as much to do with the fact that I faced east and could watch the unrepeatable beauty of each sunrise. As well, during the warm months, the days were appreciably longer. I learned to rise relatively early and nap during the hottest part of the day–mid-afternoon.
Most mornings and evenings, they would gather together to feast upon insects, swooping and wheeling in the most fantastical clouds. While I’m sure small birds everywhere do this, it was a rather striking site. The desert air was clear and there were no impediments to my view. The amorphous blobs of flying birds reminded me of amoeba or schooling fish evading predators, and I count the sight as one of the everyday natural wonders of my world.
A Ferrari with Wings
On the roof of one of the office buildings that flanked the apartment complex, there was a nesting pair of peregrine falcons. I would watch them fly their lazy gyres that centered upon a corner of the concrete roof, before plunging suddenly out of sight beneath the stone coping. Early in the spring of 2012, fledglings appeared, gangling and awkward with their new wings. While I believe the parents moved to another neighborhood after the chicks were hatched and had flown from the nest, one of the fledglings remained in the area.
I identified her as a female, and the next year was pleased she’d found a mate. They set up housekeeping on the same office building, but relocated to a better corner. One summer morning in 2013, I was drinking my coffee and thinking of nothing in particular. Suddenly, I saw my falcon friend dive out of her lazy flight high overhead. I’d been watching the speck for some time, wondering if it was one of my birds or another raptor. She collided in mid-air with a fat pigeon–who wasn’t paying attention and ultimately suffered for it–and bore it to the grass almost directly across the front drive from where I sat. It was like nothing so much as watching a Ferrari ram a mini van.
Here, she proceeded to break her fast, pausing to glare at me for staring rudely. I hastily rearranged my face and continued drinking my coffee. She stood atop the quivering lump that had been a pigeon moments before, her black talons flexing every so often. Her beak was hooked neatly, crafted specifically for eating meat. As she bent and tore free bites of her breakfast, I endeavored to stare without seeming to pay attention.
There were many other types of birds in my city life. Orioles and swifts, hummingbirds and ravens. That they were different from what I was used to seeing was at once a mark of my status as a Stranger in the city and an odd comfort. On winter mornings, I would drop chunks of biscuit on the sidewalk as I made my way to the bus stop. You may think of it as littering or encouraging wildlife to depend on humans. But I lived in a city and recognized the birds as thoroughly adapted city-dwellers themselves. They were already dependent upon humans.
As well, the crows, who would swoop down from their perches on telephone poles to gobble up the biscuits showed no fear of me. They often approached me if I was alone at the bus stop to see if there was more biscuit to be had, and their bead-bright black eyes were uncanny in their awareness. Upon such close acquaintance, I don’t wonder that natural scientists insist that avian species are highly intelligent, although it would be some time before I connected the bits of colored glass and other trinkets that appeared on my porch with the biscuits I dropped on the frozen sidewalk.