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Animal Defenders of Westchester
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Denis Hamill: This storm was for the birds


NY DAILY NEWS, February 14, 2006

The starling appeared out of the storm, a black pilgrim on my blinding-white deck.

This was late Sunday morning, the day of the Snowstorm of '06, and the starling nose-landed on the far railing facing my back doors, wings ruffling 4 inches of snow aside until he'd laid claim to his perch. I half-expected him to plant a flag. He was the only living thing I could see out there in the bleached February storm.

I liked him right away. He had a quality that was in short supply on the morning Washington gasbag shows - guts. If he were a kid instead of a bird he'd be the one climbing the long flight of stairs to a boxing gym, alone, to tell some grizzled trainer that he wanted to be the next champeen of the world.

But he was a hungry starling in the big city, and so he flew alone in the biggest snowstorm in New York City history from the big tree in my neighbor's yard to my back porch and looked me dead in the eye and challenged my humanity.

My two cats sprawled on the pantry table, bellies as full as the recipients of President Bush's next tax cut, radiator hissing under them. They gazed out at the starling through the frosted thermal glass of the backyard doors.

The champagne-colored female named Zsa Zsa yawned. Baby, the black one, flapped his tail.

The starling held my stare, his black eye wet and smart and confident. He cocked his head in such a way that made me feel guilty about the scrambled egg sandwich I was eating. If I were vice president I would have shot at him. And hit my neighbor. And been named the NRA's man of the year.

I opened the back door. Snow climbed 3 feet up the panes. I ripped off a corner of my sandwich as snow blew into the kitchen, wet and stinging, the wind cackling. The bird clocked me, holding the stare, holding his perch. I cleared a patch of the railing closest to the back door. The starling watched from the far side of the deck. Inside, the cats shivered as the wind invaded their cozy kitchen.

I broke the piece of sandwich into three small hunks and dotted the railing. The bird watched, head cocking this way and that, as if picking up unwarranted satellite intercepts for the NSA. I shut the door against the wind. The starling speared across the deck. He devoured two bites. Then he cinched a third hunk in his needle-nose beak and rocketed through the storm to the high skeletal branches.

I grabbed a half-eaten loaf of whole wheat bread from the top of the fridge and crumbled the slices. I filled an aluminum tray, shredding old uneaten bagels, a bunch of wrinkled grapes, some leftover chicken and cold string beans.

I plopped the tray onto an old wicker chair on the deck.

I closed the door. And here came the starling, a black feathery bullet fired from the cold sky. He landed on the wicker chair, strong little talons gripping the arm, looked me in the eyes, and I swear the tough little SOB winked at me. And then came the rest. Three at first. Then a half-dozen. Bigger and smaller, younger and older, male and female. Then 10 and 20 and then more than 50 starlings descending from the barren winter trees, pecking, jumping, flapping, a leaping and fluttering ballet, a crazy black dance of spring against the stark winter white, filled with chirping and song and bickering and smooching. Outside my back door, life triumphed on a day colder than death.

They ate everything on the tray.

And then the first starling, fat with food, returned to his original perch on the snowy railing. And kept looking at me. Then one after another the others lined up along my back deck railing like rummies waiting for a saloon to open at noon on a Sunday. They perched there, retreating into their dense feathers, bellies full as the snowstorm continued to blow.

A few hours later I popped some corn in olive oil. The starlings were still on my railing. They ate enough popcorn for a double feature in less time than it takes for coming attractions. And then, just for the hell of it, I fed them a half-box of Meow Mix, which they devoured with special ironic relish as the annoyed cats looked on.

In the afternoon, by chance, I found myself lost in "To Kill a Mockingbird" on TCM, still one of the great American movies.

When the snow finally stopped, I went to check on the starlings. They were gone with the Snowstorm of 2006.

Originally published on February 14, 2006

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