Alan was on his way into work Friday when he passed a homeless man, who had taken the top off a sidewalk garbage can and was rooting around inside for whatever treasures he could find. (People in states where you don’t pay deposit on cans and bottles think the whole idea is an unbearable nuisance, but I’m telling you, it’s like having your own state scrip. Keeps trashpickers busy, too.)
The guy popped his head up suddenly and said, “Man! You gotta come look at this!”
Alan, well-versed in the art of ignoring the homeless, did what anyone would do — put up his urban blast shields and quickened his step.
“No, man, you gotta see this! It’s some crazy kind of bird!”
The man who gave me both Audubon’s Baby Elephant Folio and Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America could resist no longer. He approached the garbage can, and looked inside. There was, indeed, a bird there.
A peacock would have been less surprising. The Hare Krishnas have been known to keep those at their headquarters at the Fisher Mansion. Peregrine falcons are well-established in many U.S. cities, where they nest on skyscrapers the way they nest on cliff faces in the wild; that wouldn’t have been such a shock. And of course Detroit is home to a thriving pheasant population. But a woodcock? This reclusive, perfectly camouflaged game bird lives far from cities. In Michigan they prefer forest floors near swampy areas where they can easily find the earthworms that make up 75 percent of their diet. Their long, curved beaks are made for probing soft ground. Some people call them timberdoodles.
“What is it?” the homeless guy said. “Some kind of woodpecker?”
Alan told him what it was, reached in and took it out. He placed it on the sidewalk, where it flopped around uncontrollably. One wing was badly broken. By this time another reporter had shown up, and the three of them watched the wounded bird struggle.
I’ve never seen one myself. Alan says he kicks them up sometimes in the woods when he’s fishing up north, particularly at night — they hide until the last minute, then flush almost into your face. Once we went out to Fox Island, a county park in Fort Wayne, hoping to see them do their spring mating display. While the females stay on the ground, the males rise in long, slow spirals, then suddenly fall zig-zagging to the ground. They do this well after they’ve charmed the girls into mating; some theorize the males do it to keep the females entertained during the tedious nest-sitting.
How did it end up in a covered garbage can in downtown Detroit? The possibilities seemed endless, and impossible to know: Migrating along the Great Lakes flyway, it went astray, hit a building and fell to the ground. Perhaps. Maybe the hole of the garbage can looked like the open end of a log, and it somehow managed to fly in. Hit by a motorist? Escaped from a chef? (They’re beloved by adventurous gourmets, particularly French ones, who eat them right down to the trail, the earthworm-filled intestinal tract.) Whatever brought it here, it wasn’t going to make it to any wintering ground in the non-frozen south.
“This bird doesn’t deserve to suffer like this,” Alan said, scooping it up again. “It needs to be put out of its misery.”
“I don’t need to see that,” the homeless guy said, scuttling away. The reporter did likewise. Alan paused a mournful moment and broke the bird’s neck, then placed it back in the garbage can.
“It was a bad way to start Friday,” he said. “Kind of put me off.”
I told him that if I tell this story here, some people will say he did the wrong thing, that he should have called the Humane Society of Animal Cops or whoever, who would have tenderly nursed the bird back to health and released it in a bird sanctuary somewhere. Alan, the outdoorsman, shook his head. “It wasn’t going to get better. It was miserable. This was the right thing to do,” he said.
I believe him. Sometimes, the hardest thing is the only thing.