SEPTEMBER
(The Big City)
Yellow Ribbon in SeptemberBy mid September Yellow Ribbon has discovered several small parks, each surrounded by tall buildings, and some streets having a few trees. However, in these trees few caterpillars and bugs can be found, for air pollution kills such sensitive creatures. The few grassy areas in the parks and along sidewalks are mowed so that seldom can a grass-plant be found producing seed.

Nonetheless, Yellow Ribbon is surviving. Mostly she eats garbage. Sometimes, as in garbage bins behind restaurants, she finds great heaps of it. However, such sources seldom last for long, for eventually humans in their big machines come to sweep or haul her discovery away, and then she must search all over again.

In September, as is typical among House Sparrows, Yellow Ribbon is molting -- her old feathers are dropping out and new ones are appearing. Though molting is a gradual process that never leaves a bird completely featherless, in September important feathers missing from House Sparrow wings and tails makes flying hard. Already weak from malnourishment, and dispirited, Yellow Ribbon's missing feathers just add to her miseries, and to her sad appearance.

One day, at noon, Yellow Ribbon flutters around the corner of an apartment building, lands on a second-story balcony, and sees something that astonishes her:

In a tall Tree-of-heaven a small flock of House Sparrows is enjoying its midday roost. For several minutes Yellow Ribbon perches on the balcony watching the birds, and listening to their chirps. It's been so long since Yellow Ribbon roosted with other sparrows that at first, for some reason, she feels nervous about joining them. However, soon she flies to be with them.

How splendid is the appearance of every bird in this flock! Even though they, too, are molting and their wings and tails also have missing feathers, each sparrow looks fat and healthy. Seeing that no bird acts eager to leave the roost, Yellow Ribbon knows that already today each bird has eaten all it wanted. Now each bird is content to perch in the shade and preen, and to watch humans and automobiles pass by below them.

There's something else, too. In many small, hard-to-describe ways, these sparrows are different from any Yellow Ribbon has ever seen. Not only are they slightly larger than House Sparrows Yellow Ribbon is used to, but also their chirps are unlike any Yellow Ribbon has heard. Their phrasing is different and they chirp with a twang -- they call with a House Sparrow accent!

It's true that since European House Sparrows were introduced into America in the 1800s, they have been evolving into various races which differ from one region to another. Since Yellow Ribbon has been transported into a new geographical region, it's only natural that she should find herself among House Sparrows of a different race.

By now Yellow Ribbon has become used to surprises, so the minor dissimilarities between her and this flock hardly matter at all. The pleasure felt in at last finding other House Sparrows outweighs any doubts she has about slight differences between them. When in late afternoon the sparrows leave their roost, Yellow Ribbon flies with them.

Their flight path takes them around a tall building and across a street into a territory Yellow Ribbon has not yet explored. What Yellow Ribbon sees when she sails over the next row of buildings dumbfounds her.

Here is a forest -- a city-surrounded park-forest -- as big as any she has ever seen! Tall trees sway in summer breezes. And there... a lake! Humans in small boats... swallows soaring above green water, and ducks and geese on the lake's shore... asphalt trails winding through woods and between buildings and across broad grassy areas...

Yellow Ribbon's new companions are not the least interested in landing in any of the park's trees, though surely they must harbor a few bugs of the type a House Sparrow can eat. Yellow Ribbon stays with her flock, winging past several garbage cans in which surely there would lie at least one half-eaten Twinkie. Yellow Ribbon's new comrades are headed directly toward a cluster of curious looking buildings at the park's corner.

On outspread wings the flock banks sharply around the corner of one of these buildings and immediately comes to a landing atop a chain-link fence shaded by a tall Sugar Maple tree. Not yet feeling a real member of the flock, Yellow Ribbon lands apart from the others, yet not so far away that they can leave without her.

The fence on which they perch encloses a square, open area about the size of a house's lot. This fenced-in area is just one of several along one side of a long building. Access from each fenced-in lot is gained to the long building through a barn-type door. Some of these doors stand open; through them one can see concrete-floored stalls.

And then Yellow Ribbon notices that not far from her stands a black-and-white- striped zebra. In the next lot stand three llamas, and in the next, three Bactrian camels, and in the next, a pair of tapirs, and in the next an Indian rhinoceros, and in the last, two tall, slender giraffes...

Yellow Ribbon hardly pays attention to these creatures. From her perch on the wire, the thing that attracts her attention is something looking like a small seed embedded in one of the zebra's droppings. In fact, in all these animals' dried-out patties of manure lie undigested grains of corn, wheat, and oat.

Yellow Ribbon's instinctive fear of entering open areas without first studying the situation keep her from immediately flying to pick out the seed. Thus, right now, despite her hunger, she only watches and waits, watches and waits...

The zebra wanders from the open area into its stall, and saunters into a corner where a shallow trough is mounted on the wall. It dips its muzzle into the trough and when it lifts up its head it's chewing something. Then the animal swings its head over its shoulder to ward off flies, and some of the matter in its mouth scatters onto the concrete floor. When Yellow Ribbon sees that the zebra eats a mixture of cracked corn, wheat, and oats, she is no longer able to stay perched on the fence.

As if driven by a gust of wind she flies onto the concrete floor, takes a cracked grain of wheat into her bill and returns with it to the fence. She works the grain's husk off, then grinds the soft, plump grain into pulp, swallows, and instantly flutters off to secure another seed. This she does again and again, and other sparrows join her. When the whole little flock makes itself at home on the floor eating the zebra-scattered food with no apparent fear, our bird grows as contented as she has been for a long, long time.

*****

Exploring the zoo becomes a joy. Not far from the zebra's Ungulate Barn there's a shallow pond with an island on it where several hippopotamuses live. Each day Yellow Ribbon bathes in the pond, then flies with her new friends to rest in the shadetrees beside the lake. In the elephant pen she loves hopping in the straw, and on the hottest days she relishes perching among the fronds of a cluster of tall, potted palms in the middle of the zoo's rooftop cafe. From her perch there she can see the whole zoo.

At night Yellow Ribbon roosts with her friends among the rafters of the zebra's stall. At first our bird could not accustom herself to how night arrives in this new home. First, as Yellow Ribbon and her flock perch preening and chirping in the Sugar Maple outside the zebra's stall, darkness comes in the usual way. Then everyone flies inside where once again it's light as day. After a while, there's a small click someplace, and then instantly, without warning, darkness finally comes...

When at dawn sunlight filters through the stall's ventilation openings, the sparrows know it won't be long before a human comes making its noises. Sometimes it makes a sound like this:

"Mornin', Zebras. How we doin' today, Babies?"

Then among crashes and clanks food appears in the zebra's trough. At first this combination of the human voice and the noise fills Yellow Ribbon with fear, for similar human sounds and crashes and clanks preceded the moment when the boxcar's doors slammed shut... However, soon Yellow Ribbon looks forward to the keeper's talk and clanking buckets, for in this new place those sounds mean nothing but the arrival of new food.

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