Editor’s note: “Murmurations” is an original short story written for BirdWire by Christine Goff, author of the Birdwatcher Mystery series. Find these books online and in bookstores nationwide, and visit christinegoff.com.
Synopsis: The Troutdale Town Council tables a proposal to ban the feeding of wild animals—including birds—much to the frustration of Councilman Todd Harvey. Newspaper reporter Neveah Porter suspects there is more to the story, given the lack of public notice or input on the proposed ban, and the councilman’s determination to get it passed quickly.
As she digs into the proposed ordinance, she finds that “overfeeding” birds can result in a fine of up to $2,650 per day! Clearly something is wrong with this picture, so she intends to investigate. She visits The Dipper, the local wild bird-feeding store, and its owner, Bo Bogan. He suggests that someone is trying to put him out of business, noting that the Chamber of Commerce has its eyes on his location for a new building. He said someone has been scattering seed on his property to attract nuisance wildlife. As she leaves the store, Neveah sees Councilman Harvey ducking into the neighboring restaurant. She overhears part of a conversation, and learns that The Dipper’s property is in a land trust, and Bo’s wife, Amy, is a beneficiary.
Neveah learns that Sybil Beaumont, Amy Bogan’s cousin and head of the local bird club, is another beneficiary of the land trust. The majority of the trust owners, then, probably wouldn’t want to relinquish the land.
Neveah visits Sybil and learns that the Chamber of Commerce has offered Sybil’s brother, Jodey Beaumont, $3 million for the property held by the Trout family’s the land trust. Jodey is having financial problems, Sybil says, but is not a sneaky saboteur.
Neveah watches many hours of The Dipper’s security camera tapes, and sees Harvey speaking menacingly to Bo, pressuring him to relocate the store to a less desirable location. “With you gone, I’m sure the Trout Family Trust could be persuaded to sell. And if the Chamber can’t meet the asking price, there are private concerns that can.” The tapes also reveal a shadowy figure scattering seed near The Dipper. Neveah plans a stakeout.
If you missed Parts 1 through 5 of “Murmurations,” read them here: birdwatchersdigest.com/Murmurations.
Neveah realized she would have to have help to catch the person scattering birdseed on the walking path behind The Dipper. There would need to be at least three people in order to block the various escape routes. Once the culprit realized he was about to be caught in the act, there were three obvious ways for the Night Feeder to escape apprehension:
- Straight past The Dipper to Main Street.
- Along the path toward the dam, where he could run up the stairs to the walking path that circled the lake.
- Along the path that wound along the river past the parking lot, past T-Bar-S, and into downtown.
Neveah could think of only one person who cared what happened to The Dipper, didn’t have a vested interest in the outcome, and couldn’t be considered a suspect: Tootie Nederson. The octogenarian was an avid bird watcher, and while she might be no match for the person Neveah had seen in the security tapes, if they set the trap correctly it would drive the Night Feeder right into the net.
Tootie lived to the west of Neveah and Pete in a winterized cabin with a wide deck and a half-acre of land. Several birdfeeders hung from tree branches in her yard, rigged on a pulley system that allowed her to lower them to fill them, but then raise them high enough on the branches that the bears couldn’t reach them, and even the squirrels would have a challenge.
“It sounds like a hoot,” Tootie said after Neveah laid out the plan.
“The thing is, we need at least one more person for this to work. One of us will be on the lower path, and one of us will block the path to Main Street. That will force the Night Feeder toward the dam. But we need someone waiting at the top of the stairs so we can box him in.”
“We could ask Jimmy.”
Neveah smiled. She was talking about their neighbor, Jimmy Cranford, who was older than Tootie. The Night Feeder could easily plow past either of them if he was trapped. “What we need is someone young and strong.”
“Why not ask Pete?”
Neveah had thought about inviting her husband on this nighttime adventure, but this was her story, her job, and as silly as it might be, she wanted to solve this mystery herself. “What about one of the birders?”
“That’s a good idea. How about Lou?”
Lou was one of the volunteer firefighters who had helped return the fallen owlet to its nest. “Perfect.”
Lou agreed to meet at Tootie’s house that night, as soon as it started getting dark. The sun was setting earlier these days, so he showed up around six o’clock, just as the light was fading to the west.
Once they had lined out their roles—Tootie would sit on a bench in front of The Dipper; Neveah would watch from the deck of the T-Bar-S; and Lou would stake out the top of the stairs—Neveah issued a final warning. “If you see someone, don’t make a move until you know it’s the Night Feeder. We need to catch him in the act.”
“Do we have a signal?” Tootie asked. She had taken her role seriously and was dressed head-to-toe in black.
“How about a bird call?” Lou suggested. “The great horned owl.”
“We can all do that one.”
Neveah wasn’t so sure she could imitate the sound. “I may need a lesson. The truth be told, I’ve taken two courses in birding by ear, and I flunked them both.”
“This one’s easy,” Lou said. “The sound is deep and soft with a stuttering rhythm: hoo-h’HOO … hoo-hoo.” He practiced the call. “Now you try.”
Neveah bolstered her courage and gave it a try.
“That’s not bad,” Tootie said. “But you’re too loud, and the rhythm’s a little off.” Tootie demonstrated. “Try it again.”
Neveah hooted again, and again, and again. Eventually she got to a point where she felt semi-confidant that she could hoot without revealing herself as a human.
“Let’s just hope the Night Feeder isn’t a good birder,” Neveah said.
The three of them headed down to The Dipper around eight o’clock and took their positions. It didn’t take long for Neveah to get antsy. A stakeout was boring when nothing happened, and so far it had been quiet. Several carloads of people had come and gone from the T-Bar-S, but no one had taken the path that cut along the creek to The Dipper. She checked her watch, and realized it had been only fifteen minutes. They had agreed to give it an hour.
Neveah waited another twenty and was about to go around to the front and see how Tootie was doing when she heard the call.
Neveah straightened in her seat and cocked her head.
Clear as day, someone was hooting. It sounded like Tootie.
Climbing to her feet, Neveah moved stealthily along the path. When she started up the small rise in back of The Dipper, she spotted the Night Feeder. He was dressed in black and wearing his signature hoody.
Tip-toeing, Neveah edged closer. Her foot landed on a twig and it snapped. She froze, but the Night Feeder had heard her. Stuffing the empty seed bag into the front pocket of his hoody, he started toward The Dipper.
After three long strides, he suddenly turned and headed for the stairs. He must have spotted Tootie.
Neveah picked up her pace. So did the Night Feeder. He jogged toward the stairs, the tail of his dark hoodie flapping against his dark jeans.
“Stop,” she yelled.
The Night Feeder broke into a run. Three steps up the stairs, Lou stepped out of the shadows and blocked the way. The Night Feeder faltered, turned and the light hit his face.