You know it’s May in the Boston area when traffic is stopping for flocks of ducks and Canadian Geese and their babies. The Charles River is a popular nesting area for these birds, probably because of its proximity to such avian educational powerhouses as MIT, Harvard, and Boston University. Four-lane roads hug both sides of the river, and the ducks and geese will often step right out into the road to cross the street. This behavior is well documented in classic scientific texts, such as Make Way for Ducklings. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen a baby goose fail to scale a curb along these roads. Once I saw a driver stop, get out, pick a frantic gosling up off the pavement, and put it on the grass where the rest of the flock was, all while the goose parents were flapping and honking. Other drivers were flapping and honking, too, but that’s hardly newsworthy around here.
Because we’re in the Month of the Baby Birds, a couple of weeks ago the Boston Globe ran a story about a pair of red-tailed hawks who built their nest on the front of an office building. Since some time in April, they have been raising three chicks on a ledge of this building that faces a busy four-lane road. I was at a grocery store Friday morning in the shopping center across from the hawks’ building, so I strolled over to get a better look.
The first man I encountered, Ed, has been a birder for 45 years. Every day since the babies were spotted, he has been coming down to a tiny grassy area between the parking lot of the grocery store and the four lane road, setting up his scope on a tripod, and taking hundreds of photos of the birds with a camera fitted with a huge telephoto lens. I talked with him for a long time, and in the hour that I was there, I heard him talking with people who arrived after I did and telling them much of the same information that he had shared with me. There wasn’t any trace in his voice of “oh god how many times do I have to explain why the babies are now bigger than their parents, or why the females are larger than the males.” He generously invited everyone who approached to take a look through his scope to get a better view of the babies: Lucy, Larry, and Lucky.
Ed said that people have been gathering to watch the nest in greater numbers for the past week because the juveniles “are overdue for their first flight,” which generally happens around the 42 day mark. As of yesterday, general estimates are that Lucy and Larry were 45 days old, with Lucky being about 7 days younger. In the brief time that I was there, I got to see all three birds standing on the edge of the nest, flapping their wings, hopping around, and bonking into each other. While the birds were beautiful to look at, I was just as interested in the people who had gathered on this small median strip to watch the birds.
One woman approached, asking the obligatory question “What kind of birds are those?” I looked down and she was carrying two plastic containers, similar to the containers used for a pint of blueberries. Except her containers didn’t have any fruit in them; they were filled with tiny live crickets. Several people suggested that we might get to see the hawks’ first flight if she opened the cricket containers, which were labeled “Now Easier to Use!” [Note to cricket selling companies across the globe: I used to write marketing copy for a Fortune 100 company, and if “Now Easier to Use!” is the best copy your marketing guy can come up with, maybe you should hire me. No offense intended.] Cricket Lady demurred at the suggestion that she take one for the bird watching team by offering her crickets in exchange for the hawks’ first flight. Cricket Lady chuckled and said, “No, these are for my lizard. But I bet the eagles would come after my lizard if I brought him here!” She left before I worked up the nerve to ask her if I could take a photo of the cricket containers’ labeling. I so wanted to share it with you folks. You’ll just have to use your imaginations. I’ve given you a good start by sharing the ever-catchy slogan “Now Easier to Use!” I’ll wait here while you conjure up 10 more exclamationy marketing slogans for live crickets.
See, wasn’t that fun?
After Cricket Lady left to go feed her lizard, another woman arrived wearing flourescent yellow flip-flops that had big yellow plastic flowers on them. She animatedly announced that she and her husband were from Kansas and they don’t see things like this in Kansas. “But we have land gulls in Kansas, and they look just like your seagulls here.” Ed smiled and invited her to look through the scope at the hawks. Yellow Flip-Flop Lady talked non-stop for the 15 minutes that she was there. She also shouted out to at least five cars what kind of birds we were looking at. The first time she did it, she looked at me and giggled, like she had gotten away with something. As she was leaving, she stuck out her hand and said, “I’m Candy, and I’m a breast cancer survivor.” I shook her hand and introduced myself. She dug around in her purse and fished out a business card, which she then handed to me. “If you ever get diagnosed with breast cancer, call me. It can be pretty overwhelming, and sometimes the best thing to do is to pour your heart out to someone who has been there. Well, we gotta get going. Come on, Frank!” As she walked toward her car, she turned and shouted to me over her shoulder, “Take care of your breasts!”
Ed looked at me and raised his eyebrows. I shrugged and smiled. As I bent to take another look through Ed’s scope, he told me that the mortality rate for hawks in their first year is very high. Most likely only one of these three will survive to adulthood. Given the location of their home, and the probable trajectory of their first flight — toward a busy street and a crowded parking lot — there’s a chance they might not even survive their first flight at all. As Ed said, “They don’t really know how to fly yet. Forget about turning or going up. The first flight will most likely be a relatively clumsy downward glide. And look at all these trucks. I mean, they could end up flying right into the side of a truck.” Another guy, Red, blurted, “Hell, I’d go out there and stop traffic if that happened. I want them to make it.” Red took one more look through Ed’s scope and growled, “Augh, I gotta get back in the shade. This sun is killin’ me. ” He elbowed me, smiled, and said, “Hey, you know what a sunburn is?” I said, “What?” “It’s God’s way of telling us Irish folks to get back into the pub.”
So, if you’re in a pub, or just sitting at home on your couch, enjoying your evening (or morning, or afternoon) beverage of choice, send up a toast of hope and thanksgiving for Lucy, Larry, and Lucky – three hawks that I watched from across a busy street, who unwittingly introduced me to a fascinating cast of characters on a sunny Friday morning in the Month of the Baby Birds.
And take care of your breasts!
Heather Masse wrote a great song that is the title track for her album “Bird Song.” Aoife O’Donovan joins her with some lovely harmony. This song builds in shimmery vibrating layers, just like spring. Lucy, Larry, and Lucky, this one’s dedicated to you.