Just As I Thought

A wing and a prayer

Today, the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten gives us a vignette of life in Washington: the plight of a starling as it finds itself trapped in the display window of a drug store. It has a happy ending, and that’s what we all need right now.

Complete text of the Washington Post article:

For a Fearful City, A Sweet Release

By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 14, 2003; Page C01

Bundled against the chill of a very bad morning, people hurried down 15th Street in downtown Washington yesterday, past the row of newspaper boxes with front-page headlines weighing the likelihood of annihilation by radiation, by ballistic missile, by airborne cyanide or by the pedestrian body-mounted suicide bomb. They hustled past the Radio Shack that had already sold nearly every battery-operated radio in the store, even the crystal sets that require earphones. Then, at L Street, they stopped to look in the window of the Rite Aid drugstore, which earlier in the week sold out of duct tape.

Many people went in, even those with nothing to buy.

“Do you know that . . . “

“Yes, we do,” said the store manager. “We’re working on it.”

Around 6 a.m., when the store was still closed but its doors were propped open for deliveries, a starling flew in. No one saw this, but you can figure out what must have happened next. The little bird flapped above the aisles, observed, perhaps, the absence of anything resembling habitat, banked over the cough and cold remedies, reversed direction and headed for daylight.

It did not see the glass. It thudded headfirst into the front display window, dropping like a stone past the Valentine’s Day stuffed bears into a five-inch-wide channel between the window and a dividing wall.

The starling was alive but trapped. It couldn’t spread its wings enough to fly. So it paced its small enclosure, helpless. On the other side of the divider, near the cash registers, the humans were helpless, too. They could climb a ladder and look over the top, but the bird was three arm lengths away. The humans looked down, and felt pity. The bird looked up; what it felt can only be surmised.

The store opened at 7, and immediately the parade of concerned citizens began. Men, women on their way to work. Police officers. Utility workers. Vagrants. By 9:45, store manager Rick Bromley had made a phone call, then used the store’s sale-tag printer to create two signs, which he taped to the front window. They were done in haste but with good intention. The first read: “Animal Cntrl. is comming to rescue bird.”

That was for the Rite Aid’s beleaguered employees, to help stanch the inquiries. The second sign had a different purpose.

“People were coming right up next to the window,” Bromley explains, “and the bird was, you know . . . “

The bird was petrified. This tore at the humans’ hearts. Animals may not understand that they are mortal, but in return for this comforting ignorance, they are denied a sense of proportion. They lack our capacity to rationalize fears, and prioritize them. They cannot be reassured by words. You just needed to look at this bird to know it was in an inconsolable panic. The humans were afraid it would die of fright.

Thus, the second sign:

“Please don’t scare the bird thanks.”

So passersby mostly kept their distance, watching with concern as the starling paced and fidgeted, every once in a while sharply cocking its shiny, speckled head in that way birds do, as though they are alert to something you aren’t. This makes birds look smart and shrewd and prepared for anything, but it’s probably just an illusion.

At 10:31, D.C. animal control officer Ted Deppner arrived, and, with a ladder and a net on a long handle, retrieved the starling and handed it to an assistant. She carried it outside and launched it free into the wind.

Everyone felt much better.

It’s nice when you can do something.

By noon, Bromley had reordered duct tape, but his store was almost out of first-aid kits.

� 2003 The Washington Post Company

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