Spring comes for the first time in Yellow Ribbon's brief life. A certain playfulness in the wind draws itself across winter's icy grime and monotonous browns and grays so that lawns hesitatingly flush slightly green as tender grass-blades emerge from thawing mud. At the corners of houses, bright crocuses blossom in cheerful and simple shades of red, yellow, white, and purple.
Chirup chirup chireep...
By mid March, Yellow Ribbon has experienced several bouts of spring fever. She's visited several chiruping males and inspected their nests, and now she doesn't become so flustered. And what a variety of males and nests she's seen!
For instance, one sunny morning she heard a male chiruping from atop a bird box. Even though she had no interest in such cramped apartment living, Yellow Ribbon entered the birdbox hole claimed by the male, just to see what it was like. Another time, the chiruping male was so old that his black bib wasn't at all glossy, and his fanned-out tail revealed several missing feathers. However, maybe the strangest visit of all was the male was found chiruping in the corner of a house's aluminum rain-gutter. When Yellow Ribbon alighted there, the male had hopped into and out of the gutter as if it were a nest he'd built himself, and which he wanted her to accept as home!
Some males had invited her to visit run-down old nests in use for several House Sparrow generations, and others had showed her brand new ones. Some nests were built with covers on them and others were topless. Lots of nests were half-finished. In fact, always there had been something about the particular male or nest being visited that caused Yellow Ribbon to fly away. Always, that is, until today...
Today Yellow Ribbon leaves the mid-day roost earlier than usual, perhaps more vulnerable to that delicious chiruping call than usual. Flying into a part of town she has never visited, it's not long before the first chirups reach her ears.
It's the call of the young male named Soft Chirp. He chirups from atop a tall concrete column at the elementary school's entrance. Echoing beneath the high ceiling, the call rings extraordinarily clear and sweet in Yellow Ribbon's ears.
The moment Yellow Ribbon lands atop the column's high corners, she sees Soft Chirp proudly standing next to his nest. It's a topless nest, but here beneath a ceiling, what use is there for a top? It's a used nest; however, it's built well and it's in good repair, with straws crisp and yellow, and not too dusty.
Chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp...
By now Yellow Ribbon is used to the routine Soft Chirp begins performing. Stiffly at attention, tail up and fanned out, wings quivering and drooped, chest puffed out, hopping in and out of the nest...
But, somehow, this time it's different. It's better. Who can explain when there's chemistry between two individuals meeting for the first time? Almost instantly Yellow Ribbon feels a special bond to this young male.
For several days in a row Yellow Ribbon returns to Soft Chirp and his nest atop the column. For Soft Chirp the sight of his female visitor sends him into a frenzy of romantic strutting, tail raising and fanning, wing quivering, chest puffing, and hopping in and out of the nest. For Yellow Ribbon, it's a more confusing matter.
For, what does it mean when life has always been so simple that all you needed to do was to find enough food to keep alive, stay out of trouble all day long, and have a safe roost in which to spend the nights, but, now, you find yourself suddenly needing more? What's to be made of this new preoccupation with a young male, and the exhilarated, trancelike state you get in when he struts, wing quivers, and all the rest? And why, suddenly, is there this need, which grows daily, to be near the nest, that nest he hops in and out of, the nest that is just yellow straw and feathers, but which beacons you to come, immerse yourself in it, and stay, stay, stay... ?
During a whole week, every day, Yellow Ribbon visits Soft Chirp and his nest. Each visit lasts longer than the previous one, for at the end of every visit Yellow Ribbon finds it harder to leave. Perhaps inevitably, at the end of one visit, our bird's emotional state seethes with such unmanageable confusion and yearning that she finds she can no longer simply fly away at the usual time; Yellow Ribbon spends her first night in the nest, with Soft Chirp perching nearby.
Of course, no romance ever proceeds without at least some disharmony. During the first days of Yellow Ribbon's residence at the new nest, Soft Chirp doesn't seem to get the message that he has a new mate. He continues chiruping and chiruping, advertising his nest to all passing females, even though Yellow Ribbon is right there beside him, claiming the nest he has tried so hard to get her to claim. Maybe it's Soft Chirp's thinking, if House Sparrows really think, the he just needs to see if Yellow Ribbon likes him and his nest enough to stay, even if competition comes around...
More than once, Yellow Ribbon makes her opinion on the matter clear: Whenever Soft Chirp lures another female to his nest, if the new visitor doesn't flee the instant she sees Yellow Ribbon, who glares at her with lowered head and wide-open beak, our bird explodes from the nest and chases the interloper away! After several such scenes, Soft Chirp ceases chirp-advertising his nest.
Starlings are aggressive, long-beaked black birds about twice the size of House Sparrows. One morning a starling lands atop the column, briskly and confidently walks up to the nest, and -- though Yellow Ribbon rests inside the nest and Soft Chirp perches nearby -- the insolent bird tugs hard on a straw needed for his own nest.
Once our birds realize what's happening, they both attack the thief, stabbing toward him with their beaks and flapping their wings loudly against the concrete floor. The starling shrieks and flies away zigzagging defensively, and without his straw. When Yellow Ribbon and Soft Chirp return from chasing him, the memory of their having defended their nest together brings them closer to one another than ever.
Each day Yellow Ribbon and Soft Chirp mate many times. When Yellow Ribbon feels that the time for mating has come, she crouches before Soft Chirp, draws her head into her shoulders, and quivers her wings, much like a baby sparrow begging for food. While she does this, she utters a high-pitched teeteeeteeteeeteee... Then Soft Chirp hops onto her back.
Once they have mated, Soft Chirp hops off and either nonchalantly wipes his bill at the edge of the column top, or casually preens his feathers. Sometimes, just moments after mating, Yellow Ribbon wants to do it again, so once more she quivers her wings and draws her head into her shoulders, and once more Soft Chirp hops atop her, and they mate. Sometimes as they mate they touch together their bills, and sometimes Soft Chirp pecks at the feathers on Yellow Ribbon's neck.
One day a remarkable thing happens. Soft Chirp is in the mood to mate but Yellow Ribbon isn't. A little upset because Soft Chirp is pestering her, Yellow Ribbon begins chattering in a nervous manner, which even a human would understand as a complaining sound. However, this uproar only stirs Soft Chirp's blood to the point that he rushes at our bird, pecking hungrily at the base of her tail.
Upset by such pestering, Yellow Ribbon sails from atop the column and makes a beeline toward the Japonica bush at the edge of the elementary school's playground. Soft Chirp chases after her. Not unlike human lovers engaged in a spat, both birds chirp loudly at the same time.
Cat Chaser, the second-year male who during the winter roosted with Yellow Ribbon inside Whitestone Hall's ivy-covered wall, has just begun building a nest atop the column opposite Soft Chirp's. As Soft Chirp had once done, now Cat Chaser monotonously chirup chirup chireeps next to his nest, and as he does so, he can't avoid noticing the noisy pair streaking toward the Japonica. Without hesitating, he abandons his calling and streaks off after his neighbors, adding his own loud chirps to theirs.
Broken Toe, a first-year male preening his feathers in a Sugar Maple tree in the middle of the school's playground, hears the three stirred-up sparrows flying by his tree, and he, too, joins the chase. So do White Feather, Chipped Beak, and Fountain Feeder -- all male House Sparrows busy at House Sparrow jobs when they hear the clamor, and all very happy to participate in the pandemonium.
Within seconds after Yellow Ribbon lands beneath the Japonica the six males chasing her land on the ground around her. As if showing Yellow Ribbon what she ought to do, they droop and quiver their wings, as if they were female House Sparrows wanting to mate; but, also, like aroused male House Sparrows, they hop in front of our bird, fan their tails, puff up their black chests, and stiffly bow; two or three go so far as to peck her. All seven birds chirp so loudly that Mrs. Holt, sitting on her front porch across the street, lays down her newspaper and peers over her bifocals toward the Japonica. What a scandal that House Sparrows should be so boisterous that even a human would take notice of them!
After thirty seconds of bedlam, Broken Toe, Chipped Beak, and Fountain Feeder lose interest and fly away. However, the three remaining males continue giving Yellow Ribbon plenty of trouble. While two distract her with their hopping and bowing, the third pecks at her. But soon White Feather and Cat Chaser also lose interest. They fly away leaving Yellow Ribbon alone with Soft Chirp, who still is very excited, and who still wants to mate.
Soft Chirp jumps onto Yellow Ribbon's back to mate but Yellow Ribbon throws him off and hops away. At this point Soft Chirp also gives up and then both birds fly away. Moments later they perch preening their feathers and wiping their bills in a street tree, acting as if nothing has happened.
What was accomplished by all this?
Maybe nothing, or maybe it's just one of nature's ways of getting an unwilling female into the mood to mate. Whatever is behind it, House Sparrows sometimes do it, especially in the spring, so it's one of those things that makes a House Sparrow a House Sparrow.
In the afternoon of this same day, Yellow Ribbon and Soft Chirp fly to behind Aiken Elementary to hop in the grass. At last, spring is coming. Green shoots of grass poke through the gray, winter-killed lawn. In the grass there's plenty to eat, like Chickweed flower-buds and Crabgrass seed. Beside the seesaw Soft Chirp discovers a white, spongy kernel of popcorn dropped last Sunday afternoon by a snacking kid playing with a friend...
Killy killy killy killy killy killy!
It's over as fast as that. As Soft Chirp hops from beneath the seesaw seat tilted onto the grass, not paying enough attention to possible hazards, he has been grabbed with needle-sharp talons by the Kestrel.
As Yellow Ribbon cowers deep inside a Forsythia bush across the street from the playground -- the Forsythia is resplendent with yellow flowers on gracefully arching, slender limbs -- the Kestrel perches on a crossbeam of the telephone pole at the intersection of Fairfax and Natchez Trace, nonchalantly devouring Soft Chirp.
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