The young man at my back gate had a box to sell. Inside, in a shadowed corner, I could make out the bright feathers of a bird making no attempt to escape.
The young man said he had seen it fly into a wall or something and fall to the ground. "It won't fly now," he said as if to reassure,"I want fifteen bucks for it."
If it was injured, I told him, I knew someone who might be able to help it.
"I gotta get some money for this," he said, closing the box, ready to move on. A businessman, I thought. I paid a few dollars -- not his asking price -- just to get the injured bird away from him.
Every day I fight hard to stay optimistic. The drugs, the violence, healthy 25-year-old beggars claiming to be Vietnam veterans, drivers who use car phones but not turn signals, and the not so petty thefts in my neighborhood make it difficult.
More and more friends tell me they are tired of the costs both mental and fiscal of city life. Below the surface, below the false piety of the right and increasing mean-spiritedness of the left, I fight pessimism in the belief that most people are good. Someone told me that I should have been happy the young man didn't just kill the bird.
In his own way he had done something good. Perhaps, I should have been happy he was selling wounded birds instead of other things. And then I wondered to what values does a wounded-bird salesman subscribe?
I took the wounded bird into my yard and picked up the phone, watching to see if the young man, having been paid, would try to steal the bird back to sell elsewhere.
I called Gerda Deterer, who heads a non-profit organization called Wild Bird Rescue, Inc. Getting only an answering machine, not knowing if Gerda would be around, I then called the State Department of Natural Resources. An officer wouldn't be able to come check out the bird until the next day. He was at the Pennsylvania line and was the only officer covering all of Baltimore City and Baltimore County on this particular weekend day.
Gerda returned my call and arranged for a volunteer, Dyyana Morigan, to pick up the wounded bird. A while later Gerda called. The bird was doing well. She said it probably had suffered a concussion and was blind in one eye, but the sight might return. Gerda estimated that she'd have to care for the bird for three to four weeks.
It was an American kestrel, commonly known as a sparrow hawk. A kestrel is a raptor and therefore protected by federal law against illegal sales. She said I should have told the young man that selling the bird was illegal and could bring a $5,000 fine and six months in jail. I didn't know the law and without a "profit motive" the bird might well have been dead.
Two days later I visited Gerda's home to see the hawk. There was barely room to move between cages and incubators of crows, cardinals, sparrows, finches, pigeons, owls, ducklings and four other injured sparrow hawks, to say nothing of Gerda's own menagerie of cockatoos and gray parrots. The big hawks and osprey were healing in her backyard.
In the two days since the arrival of the hawk, more than 30 birds had been brought to Gerda by good people who wanted to help them. Gerda sits feeding nine ducklings. Someone had run over three of their siblings crossing Light Street in the city, scaring the mother duck away. Good people had rounded up the ducklings and gotten them to Gerda.
Gerda told me that the week before she had cried. She was caring for a trumpeter swan that had 18 pellet wounds in its neck. Someone had used the bird for target practice.
"In all the years I've cared for birds I've never heard anything like it. The swan was in the tub in the bathroom. It was in such pain it began to cry," she said, her own eyes welling up, " I've never heard a bird cry before. Here was this beautiful creature crying. Such a mournful sound. It was haunting. There was nothing I could do but cry with it. I'll never forget it, that sound."
Gerda paused, holding the sadness back. "Life is becoming cheap." Damaged beyond repair, the swan died on the way to the veterinarian's office.
There are many birds; does it matter so much what happens to a few individuals? Or is the selling of a wounded bird in a city or the shooting of a swan a warning signal.
Jed Kirschbaum is a photographer for The Sun.