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Flocking to a Land Down Under

By John Kelly
Monday, February 9, 2009

When I first saw the bird, he looked scared. No wonder, I thought. He's deep underground, in the Forest Glen Metro station. He flitted frenetically between the lights that hung from the great ribbed ceiling. He must miss the sky, I thought.

When I next saw the bird, he looked more relaxed. He walked along the platform like any other commuter waiting for a train, although he never got on one. I was reminded how ungainly birds look on the ground. The air is their natural habitat.

Still, I began to entertain the notion that perhaps the bird -- a starling -- liked living in the Metro station. Perhaps he was a loner, which is probably not something valued in the starling community. Maybe he finally got fed up with flocking, wanted his space, wanted a cavernous room of his own.

I could relate.

But then I wondered: How's he going to eat? And doesn't he miss the sky?

People started putting out food: bread crusts near a stone seat, seeds scattered on the red tile floor. When I saw him Thursday -- on the downtown-bound side of the station -- he allowed people to get pretty close to him. Then, whenever a great column of air started pushing through the tunnel signaling that a train was coming, he would disappear. He seemed to be getting used to the rhythms of the station, the deepest in the system, 20 stories down.

I first spotted him four weeks ago. Some days I would see him. Some days I wouldn't. How had he gotten down there? I figured he probably hadn't taken the elevator. He flew into the tunnel from the Silver Spring side, someone said, blown in ahead of a train. I imagined the long, dark flight.

A movement was started to rescue the bird.

On Friday, looking to fashion a metaphor from the bird who spent a month underground and then (I hoped) rose phoenix-like from the dim station 200 feet down, I called Metro. After all, isn't hope the thing with feathers?

No, hope is an insubstantial human construct. The thing with feathers is a bird. Two birds, actually. Starlings might all look alike to us, but Metro said there were two. Members of the maintenance staff had tried to capture the birds, but that's not as easy as it sounds. (Just put salt on their tails, I thought to myself, dimly remembering an old wives' tale from my youth.)

"Unfortunately, we had to euthanize them," said Metro spokesman Steven Taubenkibel. Birds in an enclosed area are a health and safety issue, he said.

Thus ends the story of the starling in the Forest Glen Metro station.

But it wasn't all bad news for subterranean birds last week. As things were going badly in Forest Glen, things were going right a little farther down the Red Line. Thursday night, a crew using a pigeon as a lure trapped a Cooper's hawk in the Bethesda station. Nicknamed "Buster," he was released into the . . .

Into the what, exactly? You can't really say "into the wild" around here, not in a Washington area that's paved from Manassas to Columbia. And a bird probably doesn't make much distinction between the mouth of a Metro tunnel and the mouth of a cave, anyway.

"I get calls like that -- birds in the Metro -- all the time," said John Byl of JB's Wildlife Removal. "Possums, birds, sometimes you get the odd squirrel in there. . . . The Metro's full of food."

It's another reason not to eat in the Metro system. And I guess it means I shouldn't have thought there was something special about that bird. I'm just sorry he never got to see the sky again.

Answering Disservice

"He's not here. May I take a message?"

"Yes, if you can tell him John Kelly from The Washington Post called. K-E-L-L-Y. Two-oh-two, three-three-four, five-one-two-nine."

"That's K-E-L-L-E-Y . . ."

"K-E-L-L-Y."

"K-E-L-E-Y . . ."

(Close enough, I mutter to myself.)

"Two-oh-two, three-four-four, five-one-two-nine."

"Three-three-four."

"That's what I said: three-three-four, five-one-two-nine."

Argh.

He did call back, though.

"John Kelly's Commons" blog: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/commons. E-mail: kellyj@washpost.com.

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