Thursday, January 31, 2019

Mystery of the Big Bird

I have a friend who had a family of raccoons living in her rafters. She had to call animal control, twice. Apparently, the attic was a desirable loft apartment with good schools, and the raccoon community heard the previous tenants had recently vacated. Robin and I once had a squirrel in our chimney in Raleigh. It died there. I like to think it passed away in its sleep, curled up in bed with loved ones offering support, but I doubt that now given how they left the body until the stench required a chimney sweep.

Truth is, many people have unexpected visitors from the animal kingdom come to visit and refuse to leave. Rats and mice, that can enter holes the size of a quarter, live in the walls just like in cartoons. Chimney swifts will create nests on flue liners, while sparrows build homes on chimney dampers. Bats, well bats, can squeeze through a half inch crack in the mortar to take up residence and never pay a dime in rent. 

In our cabin in the valley, we don’t have a traditional chimney. We heat the place with a  lovely pellet stove that’s so efficient it doesn’t need but a small vent. This has eliminated the temptation of a high-rise critter condo. We also don’t have an attic. The cabin has an exposed-beam heavy timber roof, so there’s no place for squirrels or raccoons. The exterior walls are 8" thick solid logs, so Mighty, Mickey, Stuart, Jerry, and Fievel have no room at the inn.

Wall of Glass
We do have windows. The front of the cabin is a full two-stories of bird-seducing glass. Just in the United States, as many as a billion birds can die each year from disagreements with windows—they insist there are no such things—the glass begs to differ. Collisions of this sort rank in the top three human-related causes of bird death, our secret alliance with cats, and the our Ferngully-style habitat reduction, fill out the lethal trio. What’s worse is that over fifty percent of all window strikes are fatal. Even if the bird gets up and flies away, odds are they will die later from hemorrhaging.

Our personal mammoth wall of avian death has, to date, only resulted in one known death, a small songbird. This, while sad, wasn’t nearly as awful as the bluebird who lay unconscious on the deck while its mate waited on the rail. She risked her life sitting exposed for a good twenty minutes. Luckily the injured bird woke up and the two flew off. I refused to tell my wife about that incident until I could report a happy ending.

This last autumn a Northern Flicker (a good size woodpecker) rammed the window and lay for about an hour on the deck.

Northern Flicker after hitting the window
Northern Flicker after about an hour
I went out to see what I could do, and it fluttered drunkenly under the porch, where I imagine it may have died. So maybe that’s two.

Most of the time, the birds just argue with the windows.

But once, a bird (prior to my ability to identify them) spent a whole day fluttering and repeatedly slapping against it. It did this so hard and so often, that Robin, who was working in the loft couldn’t concentrate—and this is a woman who can’t sleep without the television on and often works with the tv and radio playing simultaneously. Turns out, the bird and the glass might not have suffered from a metaphysical argument at all. During mating season, birds are known to become excessively territorial and will try and drive off intruders—even the unwanted advances of their own reflections.

And then there are the drunks. Birds, I’ve learned, can become intoxicated from fermented berries. And if you think drunk driving is bad, flying under-the-influence isn’t even for the birds.

None of these encounters, however, is what prompted me to write this post.

It’s what happened last night.  My wife took our grandpuppy, (my daughter’s puppy, who was staying with us for the week), out for that final stroll before bedtime when out on the porch arose such a clatter… Shouts, followed by barks, and finally Robin and Ruth, burst back into the cabin flummoxed and disheveled. “What was—” I started.

“A bird!” Robin shouted. “A big bird. It’s living in the eaves, up near the peak. Freaked the dog out. Nearly ripped my arm off. It was huge.”

For a moment I was picturing some sort of mythical Roc, and it took me a second to realize it was the dog attached to her arm by the leash that nearly took Robin’s arm and not the bird.

Being a newly minted birder, I was instantly intrigued. A huge bird living in our eaves, one that was active at night? Owl? My daughter and I, who are still engaged in a vicious contest to see who can spot the most species of birds by Thanksgiving 2019 (she’s at 46, I’m at 44), would both kill to spot an owl. You just don’t see them unless you’re wandering the forests or a neighbors barn by night, and I don’t know if I want to invest in military-grade night-vision goggles or risk buckshot just to log a Great Horned or a Screech. But if one is living on my porch!

I went out and looked, but the bird was long gone.

I went to bed that night disappointed at the near miss. While, our grandpuppy slept soundly between Robin and I, a blustery wind blew down the length of the valley, ripping up everything that wasn’t nailed down. The Shenandoah Valley is usually as sheltered as Rivendell, and most bad weather leaves us alone, but when it lines up just right, the valley can act as a funnel creating a wind tunnel. That night, long about three in the morning, I was awakened by the creek-slam, creek-slam sound of a metal door swinging open and crashing closed. It came from right outside the bedroom window.

I got up, and disturbed the dog who yawned and looked at me as if I was nuts for climbing out of the covers in the middle of a cold night. Robin was already awake by then and on the couch in the loft, face illuminated by the glow of her laptop, television on, but ignored.

She looked at me like I was a bear coming out of his cave in January. “What are you doing?”

I believe I eloquently explained the severe annoyance of the swing-slamming metal door just outside my window, and how I intended to go out into the night armed with a flashlight and a twist-tie to rectify the problem. There’s also a good chance I simply growled at her.

Grabbing my coat, hat, scarf, flashlight, and trusty twist-tie, I headed out into the wind-ripped night. I found the culprit. The gray junction box door that never had a latch. I secured it with the metal wire recycled from a bread wrapper. Then I headed back to the porch.  Flutter. Flutter. Flap.

I had the porch light on which let me see it. A big bird.

It flew to the left just under the porch roof, and then back, then it grabbed on to the wall and hung there like a bat.

What kind of bird of that size clutches on a vertical wall?

I hit it with the beam from the flashlight.

This was not a bat, and it was big.

About a ruler or more from claw to head, it had the hooked beak of a bird of prey and striped wings. The face had distinctive vertical dark-line markings. Mostly it was black and white but the wings were a reddish brown.

For a moment I thought it was an owl, but that was just wishful thinking. This wasn’t an owl. Just three weeks before I had spotted a kestrel in the tree that was twenty feet away. The two bore a remarkable resemblance, same size, color and pattern—at least on their backs, but this one lacked the distinct blue colored wings.
Male kestrel in the tree next to our cabin
This was a female kestrel, I realized, likely the mate of the other one I’d seen before. She fluttered and hung above the door, then pushed off and came right at me.


This bird was no sparrow. This was a falcon and came equipped with sharp talons. If she indeed had a nest in the eaves over my head…well mothers tend to be protective of children. She also couldn’t care for the feeling of being trapped beneath the porch roof, with a bright light shining on her.

I ducked.

The bird flew over my head.

Beating wings out into the night, the kestrel disappeared into the darkness.

Then I started thinking how’s that gonna work out for the not-an-owl? Birds don’t have headlights.

I pictured her pulling a Northern Flicker and ramming headlong into a tree trunk, or parked mini-van, but as they can see better than I can in daylight, I assumed they could also manage better at night.
American Kestrel Painting – Male and Female
by Bryce W. Robinson 

The good part of this story is that the kestrel survived both encounters without any window debates. The sad part of this story is that not being an owl, and being the second kestrel I spotted, means I’m still at 44, and my daughter is still beating the crap out of me. The cool part of this story is that, sure some folks have raccoons, some have mice and rats, or squirrels or bats, but how many have a falcon living on their porch? 


  1. Your bird saga made my day, Michael, thank you! Just now I was laughing so loudly one of my fellow academic advisors popped down the hall to check on me, probably to see if I was enjoying a liquid lunch.

    While waiting for "Age of Legend," I've been listening again to the audiobooks of the Riyria Chronicles (yes, I have a problem, it's simply not alcohol-related) so all I could think of as I read your owl/puppy/attacked by monstrous mystery bird tale, is how much it reminded me of one of Hadrian's "cloud that looks like a girl he once knew, but she parted her hair on the other side" stories that seemingly drives Royce to distraction. (And that I adore.)

    Also, now that I've read "Age of Myth," "Swords," and "War," "The Death of Dulgath" is even better the second time around. The mythology around Brin, Bran, "the girl with a wolf," Nissa... wow. Just wow. Your writing and world-building are masterly. Can't wait for "Age of Legend." cheers, Lee

  2. Beautiful birds. we once had a Kestral fly into the glass of our conservatory. It was going for our parrots who were happily perched the otherside. Luckily it survived. It danced around the patio for a bit and then flew off. Left a lovely greasy imprint of itself on the glass though...

    One bird we see a lot of now are Red Kytes. They did a re-introduction scheme across the UK, including in our area a few years back. They're huge! And even though you know they're big, when you see one circling just feet above your house, you still find yourself amazed. They really are stunning birds - but keep an eye on small pets in your garden...

  3. The Big Year is one of my favorite comedy movies. Do please keep us updated on your amateur birding experiences. It's been a hoot.

  4. Thanks for taking us along on the great falcon adventure. I live in a rural area where I sometimes get to see a red tailed hawk or two. A few years ago a pileated woodpecker lived in the area & it was a thrill to catch a glimpse the large, shy bird. Never close enough for a picture. Once, standing on my deck, I was looking out at the little patch of forest that is my back yard. I heard & felt this SOUND. Like a missile was coming in my direction from over my left shoulder. As I ducked, something blurred past me into the woods, hit the vegetation with a thump & lifted off unseen some distance away. Still have no idea what it was.

  5. It has dependably been hard to persuade Big Bird to be extremely beautiful. Enormous Bird in the USA is considerably more lovely. When I got the chance to sit in Big Bird's home with Big Bird and Law Assignment sing the melody, 'Sing. Sing a melody. Sing so anyone can hear,' that was my most noteworthy accomplishment.

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