At dawn on this late-October morning, frost crystals formed lacy white borders on red, yellow, orange, brown, and green leaves. Some leaves still hanging on the trees looked like flimsy tatters of colored tissue-paper. Most leaves, however, already were on the ground.
By 10 AM all the frost has melted. Because cool winds from the northwest have lately blown away summer's haze, the sunlight this morning is so intense that colors are dazzlingly bright. How blue is the sky! How black and cold are shadows!
Once fall's first frost has occurred, and then warm, sunny weather returns, people say that they're having Indian summer. Well, one interesting thing about Indian summers is that sometimes they stir up hormones that cause House Sparrows to behave strangely...
Chirup chireep chirup, chireep chireep chirup...
From the banks of the alligator's island, Yellow Ribbon hears the old, familiar song.
Chirup chirep chirup...
The singing comes from beyond the big wall separating the zoo from the rest of the city. Yellow Ribbon flies atop the wall to see who's singing.
The call comes from across the street. Traffic noise almost drowns it out, but it seems to originate from the little drive-in restaurant across from the zoo's entrance. Our bird flies there.
And there, singing his song on the eaves of the drive-in's back roof, perches the young male called Happy Face.
When Happy Face spots Yellow Ribbon landing in the Sycamore not far away, he swells with enthusiasm. Like an excited butterfly he flits to beneath the restaurant-roof's eve and takes up position on a nest messily concocted atop a floodlight, and does his little dance.
What memories, what soul-pleasing associations this little display evokes for Yellow Ribbon. Certainly our bird doesn't feel like mating with this young male. Yet... this young male stirs Yellow Ribbon so deeply that she must preen her feathers, just to calm herself down.
But, this day, nothing else happens. Before long Yellow Ribbon just flies back across the street to forage in the elephant's hay, leaving Happy Face singing his song.
The next day, remarkably, Indian summer continues, and once again Yellow Ribbon hears Happy Face's chirup-call, and again she returns to the drive-in restaurant. This time, instead of alighting in the Sycamore, she lands on the gravel parking lot below the nest. Happy Face flits down beside her. Together they hop in the gravel and peck at whatever looks interesting.
The air is warm, moist, and fresh, and Yellow Ribbon feels good to be with a male again. Moreover, young Happy Face has never been alone with a female, and his sense that Yellow Ribbon is at least slightly interested in him and his nest excites him profoundly. Later, when Yellow Ribbon flies to hop in the elephant's hay, Happy Face follows her, but after they forage together for only a few minutes, he flies back to his ramshackle nest.
The next day Indian summer continues for yet a third day, and when Yellow Ribbon arrives at the drive-in restaurant she finds Happy Face adding fresh straw to his nest. Yellow Ribbon flies atop the nest and discovers many things wrong with it. It's an old one that's been unused for so long that one side is falling away. The straw is dry and dirty. Yellow Ribbon takes into her bill a weed-stem that has dried stiff and hard, flies away with it, and drops it beside a nearby hedge. When she returns she finds Happy Face weaving into the nest a pink ribbon found in a garbage can. In just such a way, two springs ago, our bird's father had woven a yellow ribbon into his own nest...
Throughout the morning Yellow Ribbon carries away old straw and weed stems and Happy Face carries in fresh material. Once, while Yellow Ribbon is at the nest, Happy Face arrives with fresh straw from the elephant's pen. Perching on the nest's edge, ceremoniously he presents the new straw to Yellow Ribbon, who weaves it into the nest. Then they press together their open bills.
Later in the morning they fly to hop in the elephant's straw together, leaving a nest that is considerably better than before, but still not good enough for nesting. However, today they're just working for the fun of it. Yes, today is just a day in which to play and to be a little romantic, and not do anything serious.
After all, Indian summers never last for long, and winter always follows soon after them...
By the last day of October, on Halloween, Indian Summer's pleasant hours are a distant memory. Now the sky is gray, and cold winds bring too much drizzle. In the air there's a "get-ready-for-really-bad-weather" feeling.
When Indian summer ended, the affair between Yellow Ribbon and Happy Face lost its steam. Sometimes the two birds accidentally meet in the elephant's pen, and when they do they recognize one another. However, there's not more than that. Now every bird's life revolves around little more than finding food, preening, enjoying warm sunlight when there's any to enjoy, and surviving the long, cold nights. Yellow Ribbon roosts in the zebra's stall and Happy Face spends his nights in a corner of one of the zoo's maintenance buildings. Maybe next spring they'll become more serious with one another, but not now.
Just before dusk on Halloween night Yellow Ribbon and her companions perch chirping and preening on the fence outside the zebra's stall, preparing to enter for the night. Suddenly, from inside the big building, from along the walkway beyond the stall, Yellow Ribbon hears a human making its sound:
"OK, boys, we can't let them roost in here all winter. Again, if there's any possibility at all that a ricochet might hit one of the animals, don't shoot. A pellet will bounce off a critter's hide, but if it hits an eye, it'll put it out. Now, let's get going. Pop it to them when they land on the crossbeams. They'll come in one at a time, or in little groups."
Yellow Ribbon has become very familiar with this human sound, associating it with food being dropped into the zebra's trough. Usually at this time of evening humans do not appear; however, humans are a very unpredictable species.
Maybe because Yellow Ribbon is the oldest bird in her flock she is the first to enter the stall. She flies inside and lands on a crossbeam beneath the ceiling. With her beak she begins scratching the tender flesh beneath her uplifted left wing...
All of Yellow Ribbon's senses focus into a shocking, blinding flash of pain. She finds herself on the stall's floor. When she tries to fly, her wings only flutter uselessly. The zebra snorts nervously and paws the cold, straw- strewed concrete.
She tilts forward, her legs useless below her, her face crammed into the straw, her drooped wings keeping her from rolling onto her side. She looks dead, but there's still a spark of life. And as minutes pass, and other birds are shot, a few only wounded but most of them killed, very slowly her senses return. Her wings feel like lead, but still she is able to coordinate them, and to will herself into the air.
Into the black night she swims through cold, blinding pain. Up and up and up, unable to think out a plan, only wanting to escape, one wingbeat after another, up and up and up, higher than a House Sparrow ever should go... up, up, up so high that lights below glimmer... or is it that the eyes are growing weaker... ?
There in the black sky, a certain numbness begins spreading throughout Yellow Ribbon's body.
Losing altitude... hardly able to glide... down, down... There: The highway in front of the zoo... The drive-in... The floodlight behind the drive-in... Happy Face's rickety nest...
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