My first impression of Baltimore was one of an old, worn baseball mitt.
We moved here for a job. Not mine, but I was ready for a change and San Francisco had always made me claustrophobic.
We found an apartment by the bay. Chesapeake Bay. The water was calm and filled with boats and birds. It was summer when we moved, and fish jumped. Trash floated by and people dropped lines in water and filled buckets with fish, presumably to eat them, which seemed questionable.
Yet the ecosystem of the Chesapeake was healthier than I imagined it would be. I saw cormorants and herons, gulls and even osprey hunting its murky water between boats. Fish were everywhere. In the afternoon, my husband and I would get iced drinks and cookies at the neighborhood coffee shop, then enjoy them on a bench overlooking the bay behind our building. We once saw a turtle swim by.
We had a small balcony in that apartment, overlooking a cobblestone street that felt like a theater set when the sun was low. My desk faced the window, and through it I watched the daily dramas of the unlikely roommates across the street.
Chesapeake Bay. The water was calm and filled with boats and birds. It was summer when we moved, and fish jumped.
They lived in the rain gutter of the roof. One was a pigeon and the other, a starling. (Later it was a pair of starlings.) The pigeon would sit on the edge of the rain gutter, in front of the entrance, for most of the day. What was it watching? Thinking? Feeling? The starling was remarkably patient with it. Flitting in and out, gathering bits of grass and food, it would come back home to find the pigeon blocking the entrance of their shared abode. I saw it wait one day, perched near the entrance, with an earthworm squirming in its beak as it stared expectantly at the oblivious pigeon. I watched it for ten minutes and the pigeon never moved.
In the spring, I got to know the pigeon. I was lonely and tried to make friends with him by tossing millet and sunflower seeds his way. When I finally put out a hanging tray feeder, the pigeon would often sit in the middle of the feeder and gorge itself, pecking at any other bird that got too close. I regretted befriending him then. I tried to shoo him away but I always scared the smaller birds off first, and the pigeon was usually the first to come back.
the pigeon would often sit in the middle of the feeder and gorge itself, pecking at any other bird that got too close. I regretted befriending him then.
I preferred the pigeon’s smaller, gentler cousins, the mourning doves. At first it was one or two, then their population seemed to grow exponentially. I learned that they have several clutches in a season and mature in only eleven days.
House finches were frequent visitors, and their cheerful songs often woke us up in the morning.
One day, I heard a new bird song. It was a single short chirp, repeated every few seconds. When I glimpsed the bird, a brown-and-red beauty with a coral-colored beak, my heart raced. A new bird! What was it? A female northern cardinal. I waited days to see the male, and when I did I could hardly believe his bold color. I learned that they mate for life, and both make the short chirp while foraging so that they always know where the other one is.
A bird of prey a little bigger than a pigeon perched on top of a nearby building sometimes. It was an American kestrel.
That balcony got me into birds, and made me start to think about about getting a real camera. It wasn’t the only place where I enjoyed the wildlife of the city, though.
For awhile I worked at a digital agency in the Inner Harbor. I chose the job over a more glamorous one in DC because the commute would be twenty minutes walking along the water instead of an hour-plus on the freeway. It was worth it. I got to know the ducks, gulls and pigeons, and sometimes I saw cormorants and Canada geese. In the spring the bay was filled with fluffy ducklings, and in summer, I spotted green heron fishing on a muddy bank.
In the winter, ice often covered the bay, and the ducks and seagulls would stand and walk on the ice, hopping with a cold slosh into the half-frozen water to swim from ice sheet to ice sheet.
After our first year, we were sick of the neighborhood and the apartment. The birds had been the best thing about it and they weren’t enough to counter the tragic memories of some of our experiences that year. We needed a change and we moved downtown.
ducks and seagulls would stand and walk on the ice, hopping with a cold slosh into the half-frozen water
The new building was near a plaza, and the plaza was owned by sparrows. In the early fall I spotted ovenbirds living in the shade of the shrubbery, but when they were gone it was all sparrows. They were there all winter, clinging to frozen branches and leaving tiny foot and wing prints in the snow. They were mostly house sparrows, but one time I caught a glimpse of one with black and white stripes on its head. It was probably a white-throated sparrow, and today I saw two more, pecking the wet soil under the barely-budding trees of April.
I often see birds flying by or perched on rooftops outside our thirteenth-floor window. A pair of vultures caught my eye the other day, and I thought how well they matched the decay of the city, and the abandoned building they adorned. Below, broken blinds poked through the few windows that weren’t boarded up, and the lower roof was sunken and moss-covered, strewn with the debris of what had once been a cooling system or some other large device filled with fans.
I often feel an urge to grab the cute birds I watch and pet them, knowing they would be terrified but craving the soft feel of the feathers. I think of my Rhode Island red, Bellina, who was dragged from her coop by racoons when I was seven, and imagine they would feel like her. A few days ago I finally got to grab a bird, but it was not under circumstances I would have chosen.
My husband and I were walking back through the plaza after brunch, and in a dusty concrete corner behind the elevator to the parking garage, I spotted a soft, still form, light tan, that registered as avian to my now-bird-obsessed brain. It was perfectly still, black eyes open, facing the dark glass of a building as if wondering how such a barrier could have appeared there, when its genes only expected the endless deciduous forest of the old Mid-Atlantic. It was a woodcock.
It was perfectly still, black eyes open, facing the dark glass of a building
It was so still that I wasn’t entirely sure it was alive. I nudged it with my foot as my husband looked on, dismayed. It pooped. Then it spread its wings awkwardly and stumbled farther into the corner.
I called the Phoenix Wildlife Center and arranged to bring it there. I found a perfect cardboard box in my building’s trash room and punched holes in the lid with the pencil I always carry. I asked the concierge for an old newspaper to line it with, and she happily provided one.
In the plaza, carrying my cardboard box, I found the woodcock right where I left it. I set the box down next to it and it didn’t flinch. The drama of tossing a towel over it seemed like overkill, and it was so small and dazed it barely seemed to notice me at all. I shrugged and picked it up gently, my hand wrapping around its folded wings.
In the box it went. Lid on. Then down to the parking garage, out to the country, and into the expert hands of the wildlife rehabilitators.
They said it would probably fine, and that it was lucky I’d brought it to them, north of the city, where they could release it without danger of hitting another skyscraper as it continued its migration.
I never called to check on it.
I hope that when I leave this place, all I remember is the birds, full of life.