Murmurations, Part I

Neveah Porter liked having a purpose. She hadn’t worked in nearly three decades. But now, with Pete still working and the children having flown the coop, she relished the idea of easing back into a career.

She’d arrived early, so she sat down on the bench in front of the Troutdale Town Hall and glanced up at the empty bird’s nest under the eaves. An architectural wonder originally designed by crows, the nest perched high on a stone pillar. In mid-February, a pair of great horned owls moved in, and by mid-April, three owlets were captivating the attention of the townspeople. Two and a half months later, the nest sat empty—not unlike her own home.

Troutdale had been a perfect place to raise children. Tucked back into the Rocky Mountain foothills above Denver, there was an abundance of outdoor activities close at hand—biking, hiking, fishing, and bird watching. There was a thriving artist community. And, for being only 30 minutes from the amenities of the big city, Troutdale was still a small town, where people looked out for one another.

Neveah was sure the owls would have agreed. One day in late May, an owlet had ventured too far from the nest and fallen. The mishap was immediately reported to Bo Bogan, owner of The Dipper, the wild bird store in town. He’d closed up shop and raced to the scene. Scooping the bird off the ground, he’d examined the small owl and pronounced it okay to be returned to the nest. There was a problem, though: No one had a tall enough ladder.  Troutdale’s Volunteer Fire Department to the rescue! They brought out the ladder truck and placed the youngster safely back in the nest. By mid-June, the owlets had all relocated to the trees behind the strip mall. The fledglings roosted there, learning to hunt for themselves, their parents swooping in with a meal now and then. The last sighting had been in late August. And, like Neveah’s children, by the first of September, the owls had moved on.

Now, it was time for Neveah to spread her wings.

Pete had quickly gotten on board with the idea, but it had taken some talking to convince Matthew Farrell to give her a shot. At 30-something, Matt, editor of the Troutdale Gazette, thought 58 was too old to jump back into a career in journalism, especially after such a long hiatus. But Neveah had pled her case, and he’d finally agreed to hire her as a part-time staff reporter. Her first assignment was covering tonight’s town council meeting. The council met the second Tuesday of every month, except for their summer hiatus in August. This being the first meeting of the fall, the agenda promised to be full.

The sun dropping low over the mountains, along with the arrival of several cars, signaled it was time for the meeting to start. Neveah stood, straightened her shoulders, and crossed the small courtyard. Pushing through the double doors of the town hall, she walked to the meeting room at the end of the hall. Inside, six councilmen and one councilwoman sat behind a table, facing a handful of people clumped together in the first two rows.

As Neveah entered, Harvey Todd, the council president, banged a gavel on the table. “This meeting will come to order.”

Neveah sat in the back row, pulled out her pad and pen, and noted the time. The rest of the room grew still.

Harvey was an imposing man, tall, with an athlete’s body that hadn’t seen a workout in years. He welcomed the council back into session, guided them through roll call, the passing of the July minutes, and then turned to old business. “We’ll start with a public hearing on the proposed ordinance to ban the feeding of animals within the town limits.”

Neveah frowned. This was the first she’d heard of the proposed ordinance, and she didn’t remember receiving any information about a public hearing. Troutdale was a small community, population 2,500. Not much happened here without the knowledge of most of the townspeople, thought Neveah, who had lived here most of her life. Had someone intentionally withheld the announcement?

A murmur rustled through the audience, an indication that some of those gathered were hearing about this for the first time, too.

“Is there any discussion?” Harvey asked, looking around.

Mrs. Nederson, the octogenarian who lived two houses over from Neveah and Pete, raised her hand.

“Tootie?”

“Explain what you mean by animals, Harvey.”

He offered up a patronizing smile before answering. “The term animals is all inclusive, Tootie.”

“So you’re including people, young man?” She wasn’t the type who took much guff from anyone. “We may have an obesity epidemic in the U.S., but don’t you think this measure is a bit drastic?”

“Of course we don’t mean people,” Harvey said. “We’re talking about wild animals.”

“Then you should add wild to the ordinance.”

“So noted,” Harvey said. “Anything else?”

“Define wild animals.

Neveah noticed Harvey’s coloring had darkened and he started to bounce his knee, a clear sign he was getting agitated. A prominent businessman who owned half of the buildings in town, he wasn’t used to being challenged. Neveah wondered how long it would take for him to pop a gasket.

Harvey narrowed his eyes and glared at Tootie. “The term encompasses among others: rodents, elk, deer, bears, raccoons, foxes, squirrels, birds, …”

Sybil Beaumont, a thin, wiry woman with curly dark hair, jumped to her feet. “You can’t be serious?”

Harvey banged his gavel on the table. “Sit down, Sybil. Tootie has the floor.”

Tootie tucked an errant strand of silver into the neat bun at her nape while she waited for the crowd to settle. “I understand not feeding the others, but what possible harm comes from feeding the birds?”

Neveah had jotted down every word, and now she poised her pen for Harvey’s answer. He was prepared for the question, and didn’t hesitate.

“For one, birdfeeders attract bears. I’m sure we can all agree that bears are wonderful creatures in the wild, but dangerous when lulled into contact with humans.”

Most of those present nodded in agreement.

“Garbage attracts bears,” Sybil said. “Why not propose a ban on garbage?”

The crowd tittered.

Harvey banged his gavel again. “We all know not to put out our trash until the morning of pickup, Sybil. All of the businesses in town have bear-proof dumpsters and trash cans, which, by the way, keeps the magpies out, too.” His eyes worked the crowd, looking for allies, then drilled in on her. “Besides, you out of everyone here should know that feeding the birds encourages the propagation of non-native species, such as European starlings. It’s a known fact that they go for the easiest pickings. They encroach on the habitat of our indigenous birds, looting their nests and stealing their eggs and nestlings.”

Neveah made a note to do some research on starlings.

“And,” he continued, “it’s another known fact that year-round feeding is bad for the birds. It messes with the bird’s natural migration patterns.” He smiled, looking every bit like the cat that had eaten the canary.

Sybil scoffed. As head of the local Audubon Society, she was the town’s expert on birds. “What are you talking about, Harvey? Most experts will tell you to go ahead and fill your feeders. Bird feeding can be handled responsibly. People need to keep their feeders clean in an effort to knock down the chances of spreading parasites and disease, and to choose the right seed, but there are lots of good reasons to feed the birds year round. You need to get your facts straight.”

Harvey’s face grew redder. “Enough!” he said, looking to the other council members. “I’m calling the question. All in favor of the new ordinance raise your hand.”

“Hold on a minute,” Councilman Stan Leavy said. He owned the grocery store in the center of town. “If what Sybil says is true, then maybe we need to do a little more research before voting on something that may come back to bite us.”

Harvey glared at him. “We’ve researched it, Stan. Now, I’ve called the question.”

The other council members exchanged glances. Finally, Meryl Snyder spoke up, the lone woman on the council, who owned the gas station on the end of town. “Harvey, you do realize that if you don’t get your vote, this matter is dead. Are you sure you don’t want to consider tabling this until our next meeting?”

He waved his hands at the small gallery of townspeople. “”What, and give Sybil here a chance to make her case?”

Read the second installment of Murmurations »

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