My neighbor Tom is an amiable man who is often out on his front porch when the weather is nice, and that is where he was the other day as I was walking by. He said something to me, but I didn’t hear it over the screaming.
A half-dozen mockingbirds were standing just out of arm’s reach, berating him. It was a major-league scolding. There was no mistaking their tone or purpose, or the intensity of their outrage. Their body language was as clear as could be, those skinny, high-saluting tails whipping the air. Tom was being chewed out by six animals who weigh about as much as a ping-pong ball.
I laughed. Tom did not, exactly. His expression was more complicated. He said something again, and again I didn’t hear it.
When you live in the middle of the city, as I do, there’s a complex accommodation reached among the members of the biosphere to make urban life as civil as possible. Passersby always hold eye contact for just an instant and always say, “How you doing?” Ambient music can be loud but not ridiculously so. Dogs are allowed to castigate other dogs, but only from their own front yards and only when the other dog is showing the effrontery to pass right by. Mockingbirds can dive-bomb you if you inadvertently wander too close to their nests, but may not make contact.
And every single block seems to have exactly two stray cats who remain on patrol, like a sheriff and his sidekick, and whose domination of that one block goes unchallenged by other cats. On my block, the lawmen are Philip and Buster, a pairing that sounds like cutesy Washingtoniana, a political punch line, but it’s a coincidence. They were named separately, years apart, by different people. Each cat owns himself, of course, but has a particular human with whom he is unofficially affiliated. I am Philip’s main human. Tom is Buster’s. Two winters ago, when Buster got really sick with a lung condition and seemed likely to die, Tom took him in for several weeks until he recovered.
So, you see how it is with us, in the neighborhood. We’re all strangers, but we’re not, really.
Now, with Tom getting chewed out on his porch, there was clearly something that had been rent in the fabric of the neighborhood; a disturbance, if you will, in the force. A rupture in civility. The mockingbirds were being very rude. What was odd to me was that Tom was taking it. He wasn’t shooing them.
And that’s when I heard what he said, when he said it a third time. He said, “Buster killed one of them.”
He hadn’t seen it happen, or recovered the body, but he knows it must have happened because he knows Buster (“It’s in his nature,” he said sadly) and he knows mockingbirds, and how they express their discontents and prosecute their grievances.
How did the mockingbirds know that Tom was Buster’s human affiliate? I suspect that animals watch and see a great deal more than we give them credit for.
For two days after that, as Buster patrolled the neighborhood, he had a small cloud of angry mockingbirds above him, swooping, cawing, yelling. He eyed them warily. He seemed annoyed by their attentions, but did not pounce. I think he was like Tom, on the porch, taking it. For the greater good.
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