Horrors of spring

Yellow bellied sapsucker. Photo by Jeff McMahon.

I awoke to desperate screams. It was a bird, I knew next, and I got up to find my cat.

Luna was on our balcony over Emerald Avenue, a residential street on the South Side of Chicago bordered with maples and ashes. She had not caught a bird, but like me, she was investigating the screams, and her eyes were aimed over the balcony wall at a violent commotion below.

There, on the front steps of the brownstone where we live, in the middle of this vast gritty urbanity, two yellow-bellied sapsuckers were locked in combat. When the victor noticed me, he spiraled to the sky in flashes of yellow, red, and black. The vanquished lay on his back, on the concrete, quivering.

When I reached him he appeared, at first, intact. A downy belly the color of banana. Black and white checkered wings and tail. There was a gash on the back of his head where a beakful of velvety red crown feathers had been torn out. But then I noticed two more ghastly wounds: his eyes were gone.

“Nesting sapsuckers show aggressive behavior principally toward others of their own species,” writes T.R. Howell in Natural History and Differentiation in the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (1952). “Other birds may be chased or given battle.”

You don’t say. “Given battle” hardly describes it. This battle belongs in Homer:

We drove the sharp end of the beam into the monster’s eye, and bearing upon it with all my weight I kept turning it round and round as though I were boring a hole in a ship’s plank with an auger, which two men with a wheel and strap can keep on turning as long as they choose. Even thus did we bore the red hot beam into his eye, till the boiling blood bubbled all over it as we worked it round and round, so that the steam from the burning eyeball scalded his eyelids and eyebrows, and the roots of the eye sputtered in the fire….” etc.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker has a chisel-sharp beak driven by neck muscles that can jackhammer a bird-sized hole into living wood lickety split. Without power tools, not even Odysseus could match a sapsucker at drilling.

For me sapsuckers were, until recently, entirely mythical. But a few days before this Homeric battle, I’d spotted one on an ash that grows over Emerald Avenue. He was the first I’d seen. Gorgeous and strange, implausibly tricolored, he scrambled around the trunk dabbing that beak into creases in the bark.

That’s him in the photo. I don’t know if the dapper fellow pictured went on to become victor or vanquished or if he was some other visitor, but from T.R. Howell’s description it seems likely that the victorious male  is part of a breeding pair. Emerald Avenue may soon host baby yellow bellied sapsuckers.

After a Chicago winter, there’s nothing like a Chicago spring. All the beautiful places–the Californias, the Antilles, the Baleares–are always beautiful, but that means they can’t blossom like this, with life exploding like green fire from a gray city that has been locked for months in ice and concrete and steel.

In the middle of the Mississippi Flyway, Chicago is visited by some of the strangest and most gorgeous birds in the Americas, and their broken bodies rain portentious from the windows of our skyscrapers. If nature is merciful to birds, it’s in the ease with which they die.

Most people below, hustling in the grip of Chicago’s bustle, hardly notice the hail of gems–emerald and golden, yellow, red, and black–peppering the sidewalks around them. But some notice.

In spring particularly, some are halted daily by a flash of life ecstatic or by a gorgeous corpse. With each sighting, the spirit soars or crashes. Nature loves to combine beauty and brutality–in the seas, in the stars, in the birds.

Maybe that’s why most people don’t notice. To notice nature is to open yourself to a rhythm of infinite celebration and infinite grief. Many of the dearest humans I know are hopelessly attuned to it. They have trouble culling seedlings in the garden. They mourn the forest of tiny maples that sprouts from helicopter seeds every spring, only to perish under lawnmowers. They worry for the nestlings that will fall to the ground next month to be eaten by ants, cats, dogs…

The philosopher J. Krishnamurti believes this painful sensitivity unlocks life in much the way spring unlocks the city:

This sensitive awareness of nature, of the river, of the sky, of the people, of the filthy road, is affection. The essence of affection is sensitivity. But most people are afraid of being sensitive; to them to be sensitive is to get hurt and so they harden themselves and so preserve their sorrow. Or they escape into every form of entertainment, the church, the temple, the gossip and cinema and social reform…. To be sensitively aware of thought, feeling, of the world around you, of your office and of nature, is to explode from moment to moment in affection. Without affection, every action becomes burdensome and mechanical and leads to decay.”

I brought the vanquished sapsucker inside to give him as safe and quiet and comfortable as possible a place to recover or die. As I climbed the stairs, cradling him in my hands, his feet found my finger and squeezed, his toes unusually strong for their size, his talons needle sharp. I placed him in the hospital cage that gets some business every spring.

After some moments of lying still, just breathing, he seemed to gain strength. He flipped onto his feet and began to climb the wall of the cage.

I wasn’t sure how things would go if he recovered. Prospects seem poor for a blind sapsucker, both in the wild and in captivity. Would he let me feed him? What strange foods would he require? Ants, most likely, dipped in maple syrup.

But his climb, it turned out, was just a body chasing an escaping spirit. Robinson Jeffers:

What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what

Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising

Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.”

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