City Nature / Nature's City

My Heart

I saw Sunday morning, in rounding the entry to the office where I'm volunteering, two falcons and then a third. They were haggling in the branches of a fifty-year-old pepper tree overhanging the walkway, hopping lightly from branch to branch or nearly scrambling up the furred bark. The three falcons appeared and disappeared, departing and returning from the sycamores that crowd the office parking lot. A Skee, Skee, Skee crying - something from the forest and not a suburban street - located at least one of them in the higher branches of a sycamore.

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The falcons are Merlins (Falco columbarius), once called "pigeon hawks" for their prey. Merlins are urbanizing, it's said, and these three have been around for at least a week, chittering sometimes from their pepper tree or skimming under the branches of the sycamores to rest in a specimen Ficus benjamina in the parking lot. I saw one of them yesterday whetting its beak on the bark a few feet overhead.

From their size, I presume one of the Merlins is female (larger) and the other two are males (smaller). I don't know why there are three of them or if midsummer is a season for mating or if nest mates hang together for a time after fledging. The nature of the Merlin is unknown to me. The little I've included here comes from a few minutes on the web.

I may not know their nature, but I know the Merlins are in mine. They are not alone. The suburban street I've walked since I was a child is a concrete path cut out of Nature, but on which Nature has never been absent.

Mourning doves, mocking birds, scrub jays, and house sparrows and finches have accompanied my walk for as long as I can remember, either in person or as a fugue of their calls. Hummingbirds make their fierce Tzt, Tzt, Tzt - a sound so loud from so small a thing. Down the block, a woodpecker worked at the bark of a backyard elm for several days this spring. I'd never heard that before. Parakeets flock over the street. I've seen passing red-tail hawks.

I don't know if this brace of falcons means to pass by or stay. I don't know what effect they will have on the local bird population if they do (although I suspect the resident mockingbirds will give them trouble). As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of another falcon: ". . . the achieve of; the mastery of the thing! Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here . . ." That three Merlins were here is a fact and a beauty over which I have no control.

We sometimes think that Nature has fallen back from our advance, a retreat from which there can be no return. A short walk will better inform us. This is nature's city. And falcons have entered it now in my wondering presence.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by Earle Church. It is used by permission.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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