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ANIMALS

The In Crowd : A Willet Joins a Club That Would Not Have Him as a Member

March 29, 1987|WILLIAM JORDAN | William Jordan is a Long Beach-based science writer.

I stood on the end of the Dana Point pier and looked out, not at the open sea, as you would expect from the end of a pier, but at a restaurant. It lies on an island manufactured from Honda-size rocks, which lies inside a marina that bristles with aluminum masts and bustles with tourists. The marina in turn lies behind a long, thin line of rock that trails south from the tip of Dana Point and shields this fabricated world from the surly moods of the giant, blue Pacific. This stands in stark contrast to Dana Point of 25 years ago. In those days, this was a natural harbor; it was shielded by a row of black, mussel-crusted rocks that acted like an immense jaw that reduced the giant waves to swells, which then wallowed meekly toward shore. The water's surface reflected gulls and pelicans. Sea lions lounged among piles of kelp, and sandpipers scampered along the edge of a crescent beach.

That was then. I was brought back to the present by a rustling, pattering noise at my feet and, looking down, saw that I had been surrounded by pigeons. There are few creatures more opportunistic than the pigeon (only one comes to mind). In a few short decades, it has taken advantage of the Tarmac and the sidewalks and the gutters of its human counterpart; it has taken advantage of civilization. It has moved into the rafters and turrets that suggest the nooks and crannies of its native cliffs. It has switched to a diet of crumbs and crusts that matches the nutritional value of its ancestral seeds. It has even changed its coat and taken up a fashion of sooty grays splattered with blotches of off-white in order to blend with the paper-on-tar of its new niche. And there they clustered at my feet, drawn compulsively to a creature they had come to associate with food, their little red eyes open as round and blank as sequins. Expecting that instant when my hand might fling some scrap their way, they craned their necks. But their racial memory kept them alert to the fact that what I threw might be a rock, and they walked fitfully with that gait peculiar to pigeons, heads jerking back and forth in syncopation with their pink feet, while hunger and the competitive urge pushed against apprehension.

A crumpled bag with several crusts was lying nearby, so I broke off a small piece and tossed it to the left. Twenty-five or 30 pigeons stampeded after it, feet pattering on the deck like rain. They jostled for position, shouldered each other aside and pelted the planks with their beaks. I tossed some crumbs to the right. They scrambled to the right; dozens of these graceless, practical creatures rubbed and shoved even after the crumbs had long since disappeared into a few lucky gullets.

It was then that a revelation occurred. It came in the form of a willet.

A willet is a kind of sandpiper, a shy, quiet, dignified creature. If anything, it resembles an English earl. This one was dressed with impeccable taste in subdued grays and beige; his clear, light-brown eye was his monocle; his dapper, gray back was his walking coat; his long, elegant legs his boots. With a calm, graceful stride he walked straight into the seething rabble of pigeons.

The fact that he was among the pigeons at all was astonishing. Willets do not loiter on piers; they are citizens of the beaches and the shoreline rocks. What was going on? Birds, with their incredibly high metabolisms, cannot afford to waste much time dallying. They must hustle food continuously, especially the smaller, more active birds like willets, and this one did appear to be looking--but for what? Willets are predators. They use their three-inch bills to probe for small crustaceans and worms that live beneath the intertidal sand. Their stomachs are designed for digesting animal protein. What edible thing could a willet find on the dry, splintery deck of an old pier?

As the pigeons continued to jostle and shove and neurotically peck at the planks, the willet cocked his head to eye some object and then bowed down and slipped his bill into the crack between two planks. He lifted his head, and there, grasped delicately in the tips of his bill, was half of a Twinkie. He tilted his head back, gave two quick gulps, and the Twinkie was gone. A lump moved down his neck and disappeared in his breast.

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