Bird feed

I suppose we all sit on our perch unwittingly waiting for death because we are so comfortable sitting in the illusion that we see everything.

The pigeons lived under the solar panels on my neighbor’s roof. For every brown reflective box, eight, nine, or ten gray and white rock pigeons housed underneath. They were happy there, warm, sheltered, safe, at least for a while.

I had seen the progress of their community grow. At first, there came a salt and pepper feathered bird, perched at the pitch of the roof with a 365-degree view, cooing at the wind.

The bird was soon joined by a second, and suddenly, pigeons filled the roof and sky. I didn’t mind birds circling my house, pelting it and my windows, as well as the fence, with excrement. I didn’t love it either, but what are you going to do? They’re birds. I loved that everywhere I looked, there was proof of life, right outside.

With the pigeons roosting so comfortably, more birds, different kinds of birds, arrived and made themselves at home. New brown Finches sat in pairs, contrasting against the white vinyl fence. Parent Quails and their family made a nest among my Yews. Red-breasted Robins twittered inside the soft needles of my front yard pine, and waves of black starlings ebbed and flowed daily across blades grass.

Before the pigeons, my family and I were accustomed to birds around, although not so many at once. There were the Neilson’s, the mated Mallards, who floated into the neighborhood every Spring and checked out each house, especially the shrubbery, like newlyweds searching real estate properties. 

Once, a small square snow owl took residence for three days in the grapevine wreath on my front door. And then there was Bernice, the white mottled bird that returned year after year to rest at night on the front porch columns. 

We knew it was Bernice, for how she perched with her head resting on the Board and Baton, and her flank lifted towards the porch light. She would turn her head and watch us, busily and loudly come and go from the front door, and never would she scare away.

Towards the end of every summer, when the sun began setting earlier in the day and a chill replaced the hot wind, Bernice would return. She would stay through Autumn, enduring the winter, until the earth thawed again, and she would leave only to return several months later.

A few weeks ago, Bernice was gone, well before her usual schedule, well before our oak trees had begun to golden. Bernice disappeared, but we hardly took her absence as a sign.

One day, I was taking out the kitchen trash. As I climbed down the wooden deck steps, I did what I always did and looked up at my neighbor’s solar panel condominium. The pigeons were excited, jumping, and racing back and forth beneath their fortress. There seemed to be even more birds gathered, with several larger ones standing at different points on the roof, each staring off in different directions.

Returning from the garbage cans, I spotted a large scattering of orange feathers clinging to the grass in the middle of the yard. There was no sign of the rest of the bird, and I didn’t recognize the feathers’ rusted hue as one of the birds living in my garden. 

I chalked up the sight to a visiting bird having met a visiting cat, its death, a random, natural act, but still a misfortune, nothing fated.

A few days passed, and I stood at my kitchen sink, doing dishes. Usually, from there, I can watch the family of Quail, the Dan Quails, line up and move like well-trained soldiers racing between Yew bushes, weaving in precision back and forth beneath the fence in their morning drill.

This day, the Dan Quails were replaced by a single red-breasted Robin, circling and circling a bush. She’s lost someone, I thought. Where are the Dan Quails, I wondered.

Then, Uncle Bill died. Uncle Bill was not my Uncle, but rather, my brother-in-law’s, who lived nearby and who I got to know through joint family get-togethers, holiday celebrations, and birthday parties over the years. Bill was a tease, very talkative, and quick to smile.

Uncle Bill took my son under his wing when the four-year-old refused to get into the murky waters of Lake Meade with the rest of us. For all four years of his life my son and I had taken Mommy and Me swimming lessons every year, all year long, and it seemed to have been in vain. 

Uncle Bill didn’t seem as irritated like I was. He didn’t seem to be bothered by the triple-digit heat or the sunburn searing across his bareback and shoulders, a burn that cool lake water would soothe.

Instead, Bill took my son in his arms and taught him to steer the boat. 

“There’s plenty of ways to love water without getting wet,” he said. I loved Bill then, so did my boy, his fate sealed forever in our hearts. 

Uncle Bill’s death was sudden. He was ambushed by a blood clot that tore from his lung and wrecked him when he stepped out of the shower. At sixty-five-years-old, Bill was gone. 

It’s an unsettling feeling when someone who wasn’t expected to die dies. The earth seems to shift slightly and spins on a more significant slant than before. Minute hands-on every clock seem to hesitate a bit longer, to stutter, unsure of whether to move forward, to move on.

My husband and I volunteered to help organize a viewing, a way for family and friends to see Bill one last time to say goodbye.

We arrived at a locked building soon after the Funeral director and spoke about the weather and the parking lot’s odd location to the church while standing next to the Hearst.

Once inside, we set up stations, a mask and hand sanitizing table at the front door to greet guests, a large tv on a stand with wheels displayed a photo montage of Bill throughout the years. Tables with Bill-affects, his gray and his brown Stetsons, a woven Dream Catcher, and a pair of saddled cowboy boots were lined up as guides leading well-wishers to the coffin, to pay their respects, and then showed them back outside to the ill-positioned parking lot again.

I only glanced at Bill—his body lying in his casket, hardly resembling the man I knew.  Death does that. It takes the best parts of a person and leaves the husk of what once was.

When my husband, Brian, and I arrived home, he took some trash to the garbage cans while I went into the house. My dog, Zoey, greeted me with a wag of her rump and wide eyes, telling me she was thrilled I was home and that she needed to pee.

I ignored her and went upstairs. I needed to reflect for a moment, to hide from the reality of death, I needed to rid myself of those horrible high heels I opted to wear, when I heard Brian bounding up the stairs.

“Honey, come here! You’ve got to see this!”

Brian led me to the small window in the laundry room, and pointed down. On our patio was a large brown bird surrounded by millions of salt and pepper feathers and blood.

“Is that a hawk?” I asked.

“It’s got a pigeon.”

In the hawk’s claws was the husk of a gray and white bird, a rock pigeon. I glanced across to my neighbor’s roof. The pigeons were walking back and forth under the solar panels, watching one of their own torn apart. I raised the window to listen to them. They were quiet.

The pigeons’ silence contrasted with their jerking heads and bodies and the hawk pulling long trundles of flesh from more feathers. I scooped up Zoey, and we hurried down to the kitchen, to the prime spot to watch.

I maneuvered around the kitchen table and sat down on a chair. I was stunned at what I could see outside. It was as if someone had ripped a feathered pillow in half, and all the contents had spilled. Dark oily pools lay across the cement pad.

“It was a massacre,” Brian said.

“I didn’t know birds had so much blood in them.”

The hawk chewed on its meal, stopping periodically to lift its massive head, to see us, and then cocking it to the other side to see the pigeons on the roof. The hawk had found a food paradise. It ruled a rock pigeon buffet, and it knew it, too.

After a while, one of my neighbors, let out their dog. The Shephard-Poodle-something else-mix began barking, resulting in the neighborhoods with the pigeons to let out their Poodle-Labrador-mixes, too.

At the sound of barking, the hawk stopped eating and turned its head one way and then the other and then back the other way, listening. I wondered if the barking was ricocheting off the houses morphing from where the sound was coming. Still, the immense rapture hardly seemed worried. In one mighty flap, the hawk rose off the ground with the pigeon limply hanging in its talon and flew to the back fence.

The hawk draped the corpse over the fence edge and perched next to it. It looked down at the barking dog in the next yard. Then it turned its head and seemed to regard the two poodle-labs, barking and poking their noses through the railing of the balcony on the opposite side.

I watched the hawk, expecting it to scare and shoot up into the sky as fast and as high as it could escape. It didn’t. Instead, the bird wagged its head from yard to yard, calculating the distance from it, down the edge of the fence, to each barking dog and back again.

Then, the hawk jumped onto a down current of wind, whizzed by my house, and disappeared, leaving the teetering corpse behind.

We waited a while longer before letting Zoey outside to pee, and then we went with her, our eyes cast up to the sky, looking for a shadow or a blur, or any hint that the hawk was coming back and perhaps wanting something bigger.

The next morning, I got up. At the kitchen window, I checked the spot on the fence where the half-eaten pigeon was the night before and saw that it was gone.

The following day, Brian and I went into our backyard to clean up the bird’s rest and evaluate the damage. Millions of feathers caught along the rock wall were wedged inside the seams and tangled within the English ivy. Blood smeared across the fire pit and underneath some chairs. It had been a battle, one where the pigeon had been able to get away several times.

Water from the hose could not remove the blood, and it took a scrub brush, Bleach, and liquid dish soap before the brown puddles began to fade. Inside the line of grass butted up to the concrete patio was handfuls of birdseed spilled into the lawn.

I wondered who had been tossing birdseed into my yard when it occurred to me that the small, hard kernels had belonged to the doomed pigeon. I thought of the pigeon, settling down at its last meal, unaware that its fate was descending out of the sky.

I thought about Uncle Bill, stepping out of his last shower, as a blood clot was ascending inside him. Did he know, or was he expecting it? Had Bill seen the predator as it overtook him? I hoped not, because in my mind, not realizing death seems more peaceful somehow.

That was last week. For a day or two after the hawk, a couple of pigeons stood at the highest peaks of my neighbor’s roof, monitoring the skies. The rest of the gray bird community disappeared like ghosts. As each day came, fewer pigeons stood on the roof, until finally, all the birds were gone.

Thank you, Bill

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