Bird noir

IT wasn't Poe's raven, but it was a starling, which is still a pretty black bird, and Joan came out where I was shoveling snow Saturday morning to tell me it was hovering inside my chamber door. Yes, over many a volume of forgotten lore. But also over my live-in computer. I dropped the shovel and ran upstairs. I guess I'll never know how it got in, this handsome example of what the dictionary calls ``any of a family of usu. dark gregarious passerine birds.'' Only it was definitely not gregarious, at least in the absence of other starlings.

``Shall I get a broom?'' said Joan, in the age-old way of spouses, after my Woody Allen lunges and flappings had done nothing but make me imagine a faint smile flickering around a noncommittal starling beak.

``No,'' I said. The bird was not to be coerced toward the windows we had cleverly opened, causing the temperature to drop well below the recommended limits for computers. Not to mention their users.

Joan took off on some errands. I went back to shoveling snow, hoping the dumb bird would find its own way out.

Then I remembered those open windows on what was advertised as the coldest March day in our town's history. I crept upstairs and opened the office door a crack -- for it was, of course, an office and not a chamber, a word used above for literary effect -- and I thought I was alone. Then I saw another head cocked at mine. The bird was perched on the top bookshelf ignoring William Manchester's ``The Last Lion,'' a pretty good biography of the young Winston Churchill.

Excuse me, I went ape again. With an open window at each end of the room, how could the starling miss? Answer: by reacting to my constructive criticism as if it were unfriendly. The bird snubbed the outdoors, flew across to another top shelf, and somehow got behind Elizabeth Jenkins's ``Elizabeth the Queen,'' Frederick Starr's ``Red and Hot,'' and several monographs on contemporary art. So far the computer, free standing at a lower level, was safe. I departed once more, confident that, when left alone, the bird would boldly emerge and fly away.

And, of course, I was right. Or so it appeared when I returned after a few more swaths of snow. Better to be sure, though. I pulled out ``Elizabeth the Great.'' Nothing. I pulled out ``Red and Hot,'' a history of jazz in the Soviet Union, a topic almost as unlikely as a starling behind the bookcase. A rustling sound. That bird was going to get behind the bookcase. Then I'd be calling the animal rescue people again, though they had not been notably sympathetic when I called about the raccoon in the backyard with our dog. All the man said was: ``If they fight, your dog will lose.'' Cancel the pressure tactics. I left the field to the raven, er, starling.

One more time. Back up the stairs. The door open a crack. The wall thermometer five degrees lower. The bird -- not wedged in animal rescue territory, thank goodness -- posing on ``The Pick of Punch.'' No more Mr. Genial Persuader; this housebreaker has to be chased. Woody Allen flaps again.

Now the rook finds a nook in a corner behind several tall volumes, ``The New Yorker Album, 1925-1950,'' ``Ballot for Americans,'' ``The Horizon Book of Ancient Greece,'' vintage stuff. I pull the books down immediately to blow the bird's cover. It swoops past the window to the floor and back again. It finds a hole like a birdhouse's between the fat ``O'Neill,'' by Arthur and Barbara Gelb, and the shelf above. I realize this bird needs help.

How about the birdseed from the windowsill feeder we installed for Grandma's entertainment, getting such bad reviews that no other birds had followed the one desperate sparrow that tried it? I closed one window and sprinkled a little seed on the floor in front of the open window near ``O'Neill,'' a little more on the books lined up under the window, a little more on the windowsill itself. Maybe now my bird noir would find its way to the egress.

Nevermore. The office seemed birdless when I came back after finishing the snow. Maybe the seed on the floor looked slightly disturbed, though a lot was left. But I didn't feel alone. I spilled out the bulky biography of America's great tragic playwright. No rustling this time. Not a sound. Nothing. No, wait. A dusty feathered tail in the shadows of the bookshelf? I should have a flashlight. I pulled out the next volume, and the next. It was not just ``The Raven'' now, it was ``The Tell-Tale Heart'' and ``The Cask of Amontillado,'' too.

There was the villain, body flattened in the corner, head underwing. Had it suffocated while I was shoveling? Was I a murderer? What would I tell the animal rescue people now?

Then the lifeless plumage stirred. The claws scrabbled on the slick wood, got caught in the pages of a paperback Shakespeare, jerked free. The bird was up on ``Red and Hot'' again. Not smiling. No, not smiling. Birds can't smile.

I Allen-flapped a little more, but listlessly. The starling soared out the window as if it knew where outdoors was all the time. I picked birdseed out of ``Cannibals and Kings,'' by Marvin Harris, and ``America's Competitive Edge,'' by Richard Bolling and John Bowles. Nothing in my floppy disks!

Much later. ``So did anyone see a bird in the house today?'' It was son John, who had been up and away first that morning. Now at night he said he had tried to shoo a bird out an open door downstairs before he left. Only it turned around and flew upstairs. He didn't know how the poor thing got in, either. And Poe thought he had problems. Roderick Nordell

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