Jogging past some vacant lots, I was enjoying the fact that I was the only one on the road that morning. Suddenly, that was no longer the case. A living creature was directly in my path, no more than 10 yards away. I stopped so abruptly that if my shoes had been tires, they would have screeched.
I was not halted by any imagined threat from the creature. Rather, it was his fragility that made me want to keep my distance, for it made me feel ungainly, like a rhinoceros surrounded by expensive glassware.
You see, the creature was a baby bird, a chick. If I were a two-inch-tall bird, I thought, scurrying around erratically, contending with pebbles in my path and dips in the asphalt, the last thing I'd want near me is a six-foot giant who lifts his big feet up and down as though he's stomping grapes. So I stood still.
The chick looked like an ambulatory cotton ball with a beak. His legs, which looked like two sticks of angel hair spaghetti, were under the command of a hot-rodder mentality, for they moved much faster than was prudent. They had taken him over the edge of the dirt lot, down the seven-inch concrete cliff of curbing, onto the street. Falling down was easy, but he didn't know how to fall back up.
Showing no interest in his dilemma and having all the foolish bravery of one who was born yesterday, he was of a mind to explore. He lacked one trait required of great explorers, however: a sense of direction. Perhaps he was so fond of all directions that he changed his itinerary every few steps. In any case, he charted a course that was as full of directional surprises as a high-scoring game of pinball.
Maybe the chick wanted to cross the street, I thought. Maybe he wanted to "get to the other side" in accordance with the venerable old joke. If so, I predicted that his journey from Point A would arrive at Point B only after he had caromed off Points C through Z. Traversing those 40 feet of road, I guessed, would take him about three months.
I wondered if this meandering cotton ball was a killdeer. On the vacant lot beside us and on those across the street I had seen killdeer in the past. Pretty brown, black, orange, and white birds, they build nests on the ground. They were named after the sound of their call.
The more I watched, the more I worried. What defense did this chick have against predators? His only hope was to frighten them with his downy softness. I'd like to think nature had put a few tricks up his sleeves, but he lacked even sleeves. Clearly, I had to intervene.
As I crept toward him, I heard a rustling on the dirt lot. An adult killdeer lay on her side, flapping one wing awkwardly to feign injury. She was trying to draw my attention away from her offspring. This courageous maneuver, a distinctive killdeer trait, confirmed the chick's identity.
I'm sure the mother bird wanted to alert her little one by saying, "Hightail it back to the nest! An ogre in running shorts is creeping toward you. Hurry! He's closing in!" It must be frustrating, trying to impart crucial, detailed information to your offspring only to have it all come out sounding like "Killdeer!"
I was frustrated also, wanting to tell the protective mom that I was not really such a bad guy and that I was trying to help. She was deeply immersed in her Oscar-worthy "injured wing" performance, however, and I am no Dr. Doolittle.
The mother bird's anxiety increased my reluctance to grab the wandering chick. So I hovered above him, arms outstretched as if to corral him. In truth, I had no influence on his direction, being no more immediate to him than a cumulus cloud was to me. I merely shadowed him, imitating his eccentric course, looking, I suppose, like a basketball player on defense, while his mom agonized and beat her wing against the ground with the rapidity of a jazz drummer.
At the height of this craziness, a Jeep Cherokee approached. The driver announced with a horn blast that I was blocking his forward progress. I doubted that the driver could see the tiny chick, the key to understanding my unpredictable, defensive-guard movements. His second, more prolonged horn blasts told me, with ear-ringing conviction, that he was not interested in taking the time to understand the subtleties of the situation.
Seeing a paper cup out of the corner of my eye, I held my palm out to the driver, in crossing-guard fashion, to indicate that he should not yet attempt to proceed. Then I picked up the cup that lay in the gutter. Approaching the chick, I placed the cup over him and scooped him into it, causing the mother bird's wing-thumping to reach Gene Krupa-like intensity. I was satisfied, however, that riding in a discarded soda cup was less traumatic to the chick than being clutched by a human hand. At worst, it might leave a dash of cola flavoring on his feathers.
The vehicle was able to proceed as I carried my cup of killdeer to the dirt lot. Once released, the chick continued his explorations, but at least he was a good distance from the street.
As I continued jogging, I thought of those nature-friendly signs that say "Deer Crossing." I imagined myself addressing our city council, saying that, in the vicinity of the vacant lots, we need a sign that says "Killdeer Crossing."
"The sign should show a picture of a bird," I would say, "sketched in black against a yellow backdrop, and attached to the pole that holds the sign should be a paper-cup dispenser."
The part about the dispenser might be hard to explain.