FEBRUARY
(First Flirtations)
Yellow Ribbon in FebruaryWhitestone Hall's ivy-covered walls make a good roosting spot. For over thirty years, generation after generation of House Sparrow have spent their nights and quiet times roosting here. In fact, in their own way, Whitestone Hall's House Sparrows are as much a part of the college's campus as are the trees, the sidewalks, the buildings, and the big statue in front of the Student Union Building.

One reason the birds have survived for so long is that few people even know that they're there. Of course, sometimes from deep within the ivy's shadows a slumbering bird loses its balance and frantically beats its wings regaining its perch, and sometimes for one reason or another a sleepy bird might peep. In fact, a real House Sparrow concert takes place most dusks, when our birds chirp and flit from ivy-branch to ivy-branch, trying to make up their minds where they want to be. But, these modest disruptions are seldom noticed by anyone. On this campus, students and teachers live in one world, and birds live in a very different one.

Our heroin in this story, the House Sparrow called Yellow Ribbon, joined the Whitestone Hall flock when she was two months old, in September of last year. Now half a year later -- a long time in the life of a bird who normally expects to live for only two or three years -- Yellow Ribbon feels no attachment at all to her mother and father, or to the nest in which she was reared. Now she considers the ivy roost her home, and she thinks of herself as a member of Whitestone Hall's flock of seven.

During most of Yellow Ribbon's life -- which began only last July -- she has known a world that only became more hostile, as summer's long, warm days gradually yielded to winter's cold, short ones. Now, in mid winter, this profound trend is reversing. Twice during this frigid month of February several days have come along with unexpectedly warm, sunny afternoons. And those warm, sunny afternoons left in Yellow Ribbon a mellow feeling which a human might call "spring fever."

Now, House Sparrows have daily routines, and one of the Whitestone Hall flock's most treasured routines is that of making a mid-day roost in a particular hackberry tree beside Chesterfield Avenue. Here, each mid-day when the weather is good, Yellow Ribbon's flock goes there to chirp and preen feathers, stretch their wings, and take brief snoozes.

Of course, spring fever can cause both humans and birds to do strange things. On the particular sunny, blissfully warm, spring-fever day in mid-February we're talking about here, a strange, itchy feeling inside our bird makes her do something extraordinary: As the rest of the flock wings toward the mid-day hackberry-tree roost, Yellow Ribbon breaks away and flies in the opposite direction!

Yes, today Yellow Ribbon simply feels like a change. Not a big change, mind you: Just something different. Our adventurous-feeling but cautious young bird lands in the first open space that passes beneath her, actually not far from the ivy roost, but, still, a place she's never been before.

For twenty minutes she hops there, pecking tiny seed from a wet mat of tangled, straw-colored crabgrass. Becoming bored with that, she flies a little farther from the roost, across a parking lot, to where she perches on a telephone wire. Here she has a clear view of cars and buses passing below on West End Avenue.

Well, it has simply never occurred to our bird that one could perch on a wire and watch traffic in a street below, and this proves to be something wonderful to do. The traffic makes Yellow Ribbon a little nervous, but also she finds it exciting; the endless comings and goings almost hypnotize her...

Chirup chireep, chirup chireep chirup...

Above West End Avenue's street-noise a simple, clear song wafts through the moist air, charmed with dazzling sunlight.

Chirup chireep, chirup chireep chirup...

These lovely notes flow through the air like glistening bubbles in clear water. Never have Yellow Ribbon's ears heard any sound so sweet and bewitching.

Chirup chireep, chirup chireep chirup...

Seeking out the source of this magical sound, our bird flutters to atop a sign over the entrance to the University Bar and Grill. The red, white, and blue sign reads "Pepsi," and a soft breeze rocks it gently on squeaking rusty hinges.

Chirup chireep chirup, chirup chireep...

The delightful melody issues from a male House Sparrow whom Yellow Ribbon has never seen. He sings from atop an air conditioner jutting from a third-story window above the sign.

Chirup chireep, chirup chireep chirup...

Yellow Ribbon surprises herself by brazenly lifting herself to the air conditioner, landing opposite the male, and just standing there and looking at him. She looks. For long seconds she looks, and the male just sings, though he surely sees her standing there.

How black is this male's bib, his bill, and the mask upon his face! How dazzlingly white are the stripes upon his wings! Never has anything so stirred our bird as does this beautiful male!

Moreover, Yellow Ribbon seems to excite the young male quite as he excites her. He begins singing much more loudly and with much more feeling than before. His chant quickens, and soars to a shrill pitch. He quivers his wings and spreads his tail feathers into an open fan. Ah, and how pleasing it is to look at is this wonderful male's gray rump...

Chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp...

Not knowing what else to do, Yellow Ribbon wipes her bill at the air conditioner's edge. The young male, whose name is Window Percher, is less at a loss for knowing what to do. Suddenly, as if snapping to attention, he further displays his gorgeous, white wing-bars by spreading his wings and drooping them. He emphasizes his seductive black markings and robust masculine size by lifting high his head and puffing out his glorious, black chest.

Despite her confusion of feelings, Yellow Ribbon eventually notices a loose collection of twigs, straw and dried grassblades haphazardly assembled atop the air conditioner, against the wall. The center of this loose creation is occupied by a shallow depression lined with feathers and grassblades.

Actually, this shabby construction is no more than an old House Sparrow nest, one built long before both Yellow Ribbon and Window Percher were born. Nonetheless, at this moment Window Percher seems to consider it his own, and, even more outlandish, he appears to think that Yellow Ribbon should come take a look at it. He conveys these thoughts by hopping back and forth between the nest and the air conditioner's top.

Indeed, longer days and uncommonly warm weather have stirred up hormones in each of our birds, and now for the first time in both of their lives they're experiencing home-making instincts. Window Percher is for the first time feeling the urge to entice a female to come nest with him, and Yellow Ribbon is experiencing for the first time the excitement of courtship. Of course, even though the whole scene has a hormonal basis, it also must be admitted that right now these two House Sparrows atop an old air-conditioner jutting from a brick wall along busy West End Avenue are enjoying themselves immensely!

After several hops into and out of the nest, Window Percher works himself into a romantic fervor: He hops so near our bird that it quite unnerves her. Defensively Yellow Ribbon flattens her body against the air conditioner's surface and threateningly stretches her head forward. To prove that she isn't to be fooled with, she gapes wide her mouth, charges Window Percher, and pecks him.

However, her pecks are only half-hearted ones, and Window Percher seems to know it.

For two minutes Window Percher continues hopping into and out of the nest, and attempting to get closer to our bird, but Yellow Ribbon keeps resisting. One would think that a female offering such resistance would simply fly away... but that's not, of course, the way courtship works.

Nonetheless, eventually Yellow Ribbon does fly away, simply leaving Window Percher standing dumbly looking after her. She lands on the telephone wire leading into Wright's Photography Shop. There, with the sun shining warmly onto her back, she pauses to preen her feathers and wipe her bill, trying to calm down, trying to stop trembling from having seen such a beautiful male, and from having been introduced to a nest that, perhaps, could have been her own...

*****

In February, warm days never last for long. When nighttime comes on this day when Yellow Ribbon meets Window Percher, another winter storm blows into town, bringing with it the usual snow, and the coldest temperatures Yellow Ribbon ever has experienced. At dawn the next morning, inside the ivy roost on Whitestone Hall's southern wall, Yellow Ribbon perches with her feathers fluffed out, and her head tucked deep into the soft feathers of her chest, looking like a soft ball of gray and brown fuzz. As the sky flushes with dawn's first milky light, our bird feels numb and groggy. How distant seem yesterday's odors of thawed mud and melting snow, the feeling of warm sunlight upon one's back, and how long ago were Window Percher's sweet chirps.

On this coldest morning of the year a tragedy has befallen Yellow Ribbon's little flock. Weakened by parasitic worms in his gut, Old Bird has died an hour before dawn. The time simply came when his body needed more energy to stay warm and alive, and to feed his worms, than his weakened system could provide.

Now a thin crust of white ice crystals border the lids of Old Bird's half-closed eyes. His stiff body will perch frozen until warm weather thaws his feet, and then he will tumble unnoticed onto the ground below the ivy.

One could say that this is an omen: For, the rest of February will bring only overcast and sometimes snowy days, and bitterly cold nights. Memories of the encounter between Yellow Ribbon and Window Percher will fade as all House Sparrows in town bend to the simple but vital task of each day eating enough to fuel the body during the following night's life-threatening coldness.

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