First, the boy. Though I do not know his name, he is not exactly a stranger, for I have often seen him on the vacant lot adjacent to my back yard. He is the son of the lot owner’s girlfriend, a nice-looking young man, about fourteen, rosy-cheeked with dark hair and eyes.
Next, the BB gun. The first time I saw it, it was in the lot owner’s hands. However, the boy is the one who had possession of it the day a Catbird appeared in my yard, alive but suffering from a head wound. It was also the boy who used it a week later to kill a Robin—while his mother and the lot owner looked on.
The bird the boy killed yesterday was a Slate-colored Junco. Like Catbirds and Robins, Juncos are common—but like Catbirds, Robins, and most other birds, they are nevertheless protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Even on private property. While the boy and his mother may not know that, the lot owner does.
I should explain that I am former English teacher who, in retirement, has felt called to participate in citizen science, wherein ordinary people gather and report data to scientists who study the information thus gleaned. As calls go, this was a small one, involving no angels with their “Fear nots,” no long journeys, no dramatic confrontations with the Powers That Be, no astonishing pregnancies. This call came quietly through the invitation of a friend. It was easy to say “Yes” to a new way of observing small portions of God’s creation.
One instrument for that “Yes” is the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. One irony of yesterday’s Junco shooting is that it occurred on Day 3 of this year’s Count. I had just set up my camera at the back door, placed my binoculars nearby, and begun to watch—and count—the birds at my back yard feeders when the lot owner and the boy arrived. The lot owner scattered bread crumbs. Thirty minutes later, the boy had shot the Junco dead. I have pictures.
The neighborly thing to do, of course, would be to talk to the lot owner. But I have done that, as have others with more authority than I. I know from our conversations and from observing him at civic meetings that he is big on the rights of property owners—and that even on his vacant lot, he considers birds nuisances. “If you didn’t feed them, we wouldn’t have to shoot them,” he said to me once last summer.
Another irony of the Junco shooting was that the bread crumbs he threw down were directly in line with my back door. Given our divergent political and philosophical leanings, I cannot help but wonder: Was he merely baiting birds, or was he also baiting me?
Shaken, yesterday I did what I had previously been advised to do: I phoned the authorities. Today, this fourth and last day of this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count, I continue to watch and count—but also to watch and pray. Is there something else I should do? Today, Red-winged Blackbirds have come to the feeders, along with Blue Jays, Cardinals, Goldfinches, Sparrows, a Tufted Titmouse, a Carolina Chickadee, Mourning Doves, and yes, Juncos. Today I wonder: could any of them be angels? If so, what would they call me to do if they could speak?
By Angier Brock