The Messenger on My Balcony

New Yorkers can live an insular kind of life, especially those of us living on the grid, in Manhattan. It’s easy to feel the city closing in and kind of shutting out the rest of the world. If it were not for the Instagram #lookingup, I don’t know that I would see the sky some days. Walking the streets here and you might get the sense of walking at the bottom of a canyon. Factor in the stress of survival and one can start to feel slightly mole-ish (is that a word?): almost blind, digging at what’s in front of you.

Dealing with my usual avalanche of responsibilities one recent morning, I caught a peripheral flash of movement. I looked up from all the papers on my desk and saw this:


He was huge, and he was beautiful. His presence was arresting. We stared at each other for about two minutes, each wondering what the other was thinking. I somehow managed to snap this photo, through the raindrops on the glass door.

I posted the picture above to Facebook and asked if anyone could identify this bird. I had no luck until dinnertime, when I told my daughter the story and showed her the picture.

“I know what it is! It’s an American Kestrel,” she announced.

How, I asked, in the world, did she know that?

“It’s one of the pieces in my bird bingo game. The one you gave me.“

I didn’t have to check bird bingo pieces. Kids don’t make up stuff like this. It was just another moment when my daughter knew more than I did, because, well, kids aren’t moles. Their vision, particularly as it turns inward, isn’t restricted by the presence of canyon walls and daily hardship.

My daughter has gone on to other things, but the kestrel has stayed with me. I’ve read about the species – it’s a type of urban falcon and they are fond of the cornices on the buildings in my Upper East Side neighborhood. But the ornithology was less interesting to me than a question a dear friend posed over breakfast: Why do you think this bird showed up when he did?

Of course, there is the obvious, he was hunting and perched there to get the view of his prey. But, this kestrel sparked something in me, and ultimately that matters more than the practical answer.

So I told my friend that the kestrel perched on my balcony to remind me that there is a big, bountiful, natural world still churning beyond my canyon and crisis-mode tunnel vision. And that I’m still part of it. And maybe I have more agency and vision than I’ve relied on of late.

For those who are open to the intersection of symbols and nature, an animal can be a totem. A site my dear friend linked me to has this to say:

People who choose the kestrel as their totem animal should be willing and ready to sit in a place where they can have clear view of the world . . . When they want to make a decision concerning their goals, they tend to look for a perfect view of the final thing to be sure of. They need to try to get what they want. Such people may be reluctant in taking risks. This animal totem provides a clear picture of what one may wish to venture into next.

There’s nothing like ongoing crisis to make one risk-averse. A bigger, clearer picture suited me fine in that moment.

Make what you will of my visitor. Me, I’ve been thanking him for helping me regain a little of the vision I need to aspire to better things than I’ve had of late. You can say a bird is just a bird, but the kestrel almost dared me to dismiss him. And I won’t. I can’t. He showed up, just in time, to usher me towards what’s next for me and to remind me to take a wide view, when making my plans.

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