Saturday, October 28, 2006

Duel at Twilight

The building where I live fronts onto a six-lane divided highway. In front of the building, between it and the road, is a parking lot (of course), whose aisles are separated by wide strips of grass. Each strip is planted with two S-curves of some low, red-leafed shrub; at the end near the building they are planted with maples that fill the parking lot with whirlybirds in seed season, and at the road end are Bartlett pears. The grassy stretch along the road itself is planted with Japanese-lantern trees, and another double line of pears increase the buffer along the large common area beyond the lot. In summer there are a lot of robins, and the Japanese-lantern trees are absolutely filled with bumble and honey bees in spring. Despite all the traffic, it's a nice place to watch birds.

Thursday afternoon two mockingbirds had selected the stretch of asphalt between two pears as a dueling ground.

They were going at each other as I got off the bus, flashing wings as they leapt into the air, straight into each other and then somesaulting away. Back into the air in another acrobatic lunging attack, and then another, and then, suddenly, they stopped. Now they stared at each other across eight or nine inches of asphalt for a moment, then began bouncing back and forth, not walking - bouncing stiff-legged, with their tails held high and stiff and flared and their chests puffed. And all in silence, odd for these consummate, prolific singers. Sideways they bounced, six, seven bounces and then back the other way, facing each other as they did. Every now and then one paused, and then they would bounce straight ahead, getting very close, before backing away again.

A car drove up the aisle and the mockingbirds immediately flew off to their respective trees, but even as I started to walk on they descended back to their duelling ground. The bouncing began again, their heads cocked to keep an eye on each other. The late afternoon sunshine - half an hour till sunset - slanted across the lot and they moved in and out of the light and shadow. Now and then one would run a few steps and the other would bounce faster - both did this - and then they would both bounce back again. It was mesmerizing.

And then, quite suddenly, with no sign that I could see, one of them turned, ran a few steps, and leapt into the air, flying into the pear and disappearing. The other stood quietly almost twenty seconds, then did one of those flashing backwards somersaults with wings outspread and landed again in almost the exact same spot. Another moment, and he, too, flew away.

I think this must have been a boundary dispute. They do, after all, live in neighboring trees, and all year round, while it's late for any courtship (not that this looked like courtship, the way it ended) or competition for mates. That line they had between them as they confronted each other - someone must have crossed it.

But whatever they were doing, it was a moment of slant-sun-lit magic in gray, white, and green...

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