Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Bold and the Beautiful: The continuing saga of Duluth's Peregrine Falcons

Bud Tordoff, who was among the very first people to start Minnesota's
Peregrine Reintroduction Project. This photo was from the
Midwest Peregrine Society, taken the last day Dr. Tordoff was in the field
banding young birds.
In 1982, Harrison "Bud" Tordoff and several other Minnesotans banded together to start our state’s Peregrine Falcon Reintroduction Program, which quickly became one of several enormous successes of the Endangered Species Act. 

Ten years later, in 1992, when the project was enjoying its first successes along the North Shore and in a few areas near the Twin Cities and a couple of mining areas, right when some of the first reintroduced birds were first trying to nest on the big bridges between Duluth and Superior, my friend Dudley Edmondson got the idea to put up a peregrine nesting box in downtown Duluth. He contacted the Raptor Resource Project of Decorah, Iowa, and they set up a box on the Greysolon Hotel. 

Although that group is famous for the nest cam they have on their local Bald Eagles, they’ve never worked out a way to put a cam on the Duluth peregrine box. At first, such a thing wouldn’t have worked anyway—it took eleven years for a peregrine to show any interest in the box.

Finally, in 2003, a young female who had hatched from a nest in Minneapolis showed up, inspecting the box. She didn’t manage to attract a mate that year, and in the fall, an adult female turned up wanting the box for herself. She was not banded, and no one knows where she came from—that was mystifying because every state's peregrine reintroduction program has been, from the start, so effective at tracking every bird they released; they were banding what they thought were all of the chicks produced by birds that had come out of the program. Suddenly, here was a female, seemingly out of nowhere—a Mysterious Stranger. She wanted that nest box, and so she took it.

Tragically, Peregrine Falcons do not watch soap operas, so they don’t realize that writers are only supposed to inject a murder into the plotline when the ratings are slumping or they need to write off an actor who is demanding more pay. The less experienced bird fought for the box without thinking through the ramifications of fighting off an older, savvier bird, and she didn’t know when to retreat. She ended up dead, giving the Mysterious Stranger undisputed ownership of the box. 

In spring the following year, 2004, again out of the blue, another Mysterious Stranger arrived on the scene—an unbanded adult male.

Peregrine Falcon
Duluth's unbanded male: Our Mysterious Stranger
The two birds with unknown pasts did what birds and bees and educated fleas and soap opera stars do, and soon there were three chicks in the nest box. On fledging, one got into an accident, broke her leg, and ended up dying at the Raptor Center. Another was killed by a plane in Chicago, and the third’s destiny is unknown.

I started working for a company in downtown Duluth in 2005. I didn’t know any of the Raptor Resource people, but spent a lot of time watching and photographing the birds as they raised four chicks. I watched one female make her maiden flight on July 3.

Barely-fledged Peregrine Falcon
Right after fledging, this young female ended up in a Duluth parking ramp
Peregrine Falcon day of fledging

She ended up in a parking ramp, and after taking a bazillion close-up photos of her and realizing she could not figure out how to get out of the ramp, I captured her in a towel, managed to get up on the roof of the NorShor Theater, and released her there. During the following few weeks, the four chicks spent a lot of time in the park along the Lake Walk, and I got more photos before they finally disappeared for the year. I later found out, based on her band number, that the Raptor Resource Project people had named the young female I rescued Maggie. None of that year's chicks' destinies are known.

I followed Duluth’s Peregrine Falcons pretty carefully while I worked downtown, but the company I was working for relocated, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep such good tabs on the birds in 2006. I was very concerned about the difficulties many young urban falcons face when they first fledge. They often ended up grounded, like Maggie had, because they don’t have the wide-open spaces of their natural cliff environments that allow them to work their wings without obstructions when they're taking their first flights. And urban buildings are not only big obstructions—they’re often covered with glass that the birds don’t see, making collisions even more likely. Urban fledglings often need a bit of help until they grow savvier and develop more flying skills.

So I contacted Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory suggesting that we needed a regular downtown presence as an organization. It seemed worthwhile to work with people tied in with the Raptor Resource Project, too, so we could get more information about the nestlings each year. People downtown were already excited about these magnificent birds—giving them information about them along with tips on how to help them if they got grounded seemed good for everyone and sure enough, that’s how it turned out when Hawk Ridge started their wonderful Peregrine Watch program. Julie O’Connor became the first face of the project, got the program off to a resounding start in 2006, and her solid knowledge and effervescent enthusiasm made Peregrine Watch an instant success.

Julie O'Connor
Julie O'Connor at Lake Place Park in Duluth during the 2006 Peregrine Watch program.
That year, the same two Mysterious Stranger peregrines showed up again, and again raised four chicks. This time, Julie and others from Peregrine Watch were downtown at Lake Place Park just about every day, with a scope on the nest and close up photos of the birds—hundreds of Duluthians and tourists got to see adult peregrines, nestlings, and eventually fledglings up close and personal, and get accurate information about them.  Julie told me ahead of time when the nestlings were going to be banded and finagled an invitation for me to join them on the hotel roof.

The day before, when the banders were sizing up the situation to decide if the chicks were the right size for banding, the female kept aggressively attacking them. She grabbed the hat off Raptor Resource Project Director Bob Anderson’s head, but the next time she swooped in, they plucked her out of the sky and banded her. 

"Amy" the Peregrine Falcon
Our female Mysterious Stranger the day after she was banded and given the name Amy
Now that she was banded, they gave our female Mysterious Stranger an official name, Amy, (named for Amy Ries of the Raptor Resource Project). The unbanded male, more wisely or less committed to defending his young, has never been caught. Even today, in 2015, he maintains his Mysterious Stranger mystique.

“Amy” was extremely riled up by the banders, and the whole time they were working, she screamed all kinds of peregrine obscenities as well as dive-bombing them, providing me with some dramatic photos.

"Amy" the Peregrine Falcon
Amy cursing out the banders; her language would have been bleeped out on network TV.
Why Peregrine banders wear a hard hat
The late Rob MacIntyre was smart enough to wear a hard hat--we could hear a few loud clunks!
Why Peregrine banders wear a hard hat

I also got plenty of photos of the young and the banding process.

Peregrine Falcon nestlings

Rob MacIntyre

Banding Peregrine Falcons can be bloody
Banding falcons can be a bloody task

Julie O'Connor
Julie O'Connor holding one of the newly banded chicks before they were returned safely to the nest box
Amy and Our Mysterious Stranger continued their summer patterns for four more summers, through 2010. Each year, Amy laid four eggs. Sadly, in 2008 three of the chicks died from a nasty parasitic disease when very young, but all in all, this couple successfully fledged 24 young—an amazing track record.

Then, in 2011, Amy did not return. No one knows what happened to her—if someone found her injured or dead, we presume her fate would have been reported to the Bird Banding Laboratory or one of the Peregrine reintroduction groups. Losing her without any knowledge of what happened is not at all in keeping with what we yearn for in soap operas, but quite in keeping with a bird who appeared out of the blue one day. She presumably died sometime between 2010 and 2011. If we were to create a monument to Amy, both her start and end dates would be question marks.

Amy’s mate returned, but it’s impossible without a soap opera soundtrack to guess whether he was devastated from grief, didn’t notice her absence at all, or felt something in between. Anyone who claims that birds don’t feel emotions is being completely unscientific, but anyone who claims that birds feel a specific emotion is being equally unscientific. We simply have no way of knowing what is going on in their minds or hearts. But we do know that a seven-year-old female banded in Ontario as a nestling in 2004 showed up and Our Mysterious Stranger accepted her as a mate.

"Jenna" the Peregrine Falcon mother
Jenna, the female who turned up in 2011
This female was simply called B/8 by the people who banded her. The people at Peregrine Watch started calling her Canada or Jenna. She and Our Mysterious Stranger raised two chicks that year. The banders named one Laura, after me—what a thrill that was!

"Laura" the Peregrine Falcon
"Laura"

"Waters" the Peregrine Falcon
Laura's sister, "Waters."
Laura got into a bit of a pickle a day or two after she fledged, and needed to be rescued and placed atop the building again—no one saw her after that day, but we don’t know what happened to her.

Laura's night on the town
Laura ended up on top of this car, but was retrieved by a local bander and returned to a safe roof top.
Laura's night on the town

In 2012, spring arrived early enough that Jenna and Our Mysterious Stranger started the nest two full weeks ahead of schedule. By the time the banders arrived, the four chicks were too old to be banded without risking them jumping prematurely from the nest. In 2013, Jenna produced four eggs, but one didn’t hatch. And in 2014, three of their eggs didn’t hatch. Their one fledgling that year, a male, was never banded.

We have no idea whatsoever why half their eggs didn’t hatch those two years. The wet, cold weather both years may have made hunting poor or kept Jenna off the nest too much, or Our Mysterious Stranger may be reaching the end of his reproductive peak, and some of his sperm may no longer be viable. It's also possible that Jenna is producing less viable eggs. Banded, wild Peregrine Falcons have survived over 19 years. Our Mysterious Stranger is, at a minimum, 15 years old now, and could be older—we have no way of knowing. We do know that Jenna is 11 years old this year.

We had much more favorable conditions for nesting in 2015, and Jenna and Our Mysterious Stranger appeared right on schedule. But in a sad plot twist worthy of the finest TV soap, another male turned up, too—a young guy still approaching his prime, who had been banded as a nestling in Cloquet two years ago.

Without a soap opera's musical soundtrack, we can’t guess what Jenna thought about all this. Did she want a new mate to improve her chances of raising young? Was she simply growing tired of Our Mysterious Stranger, yearning for a change of pace? Might she have been having a midlife crisis? Whatever she was thinking, she and the New Kid on the Block set up housekeeping on a different nest box, further west, on Duluth's Torrey Building. Her own fertility is still something of a question mark: she produced four eggs, but only two hatched.

The new male may be showing superficial politeness to his elder, may be intimidated by the more experienced unbanded male, or maybe just hasn’t found a reason to fight, so both males have been hanging around all summer without any noticeable battles. Our Mysterious Stranger seems mystified by the turn of events—he’s been seen by many people circling over downtown, carrying food and calling. That used to be the signal to Jenna that he was bringing provisions to her and the chicks, and even now, she’s been seen flying up and accepting his gifts—but then she carries them off to her new nest, and he flies back to the old nest box on the Greysolon Building alone.

Hawk Ridge's Peregrine Watch is still continuing. Here are Miranda Durbin,
Katie Swanson, and Pip the Birding Dog at Lake Place Park, June 2015.
When this year’s two chicks were banded, no blood samples were taken, so we don’t know if the new young male fathered both of them or whether Jenna was also engaging in a bit of hanky-panky with her reliable old mate. So in another twist worthy of the finest television soap opera, the chicks may be siblings or only half siblings—their true parentage is a question in their mother’s past. Regardless of who their father(s) may be, this year’s chicks have a better chance than most of surviving, what with having two males bringing food to their mother.

Like the best of soap operas, the continuing saga of Duluth’s Peregrine Falcons has no ending in sight. Our Mysterious Stranger is so far the one character who has been part of the storyline from the first season. We know that, like Mrs. Chancellor or Victor Newman from The Young and the Restless or Erica Kane from All My Children, his pivotal role in our local soap will eventually come to an end. But as long as Peregrine Falcons continue to fly in Minnesota, this is one soap opera that will go on and on, regardless of sponsors, and regardless of ratings. And the offspring Our Mysterious Stranger and Amy and Jenna and The New Kid on the Block have produced will live on, to produce more young, to ensure more soap opera storylines well into the future.

Peregrine Falcon nestling

Monday, June 29, 2015

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo
The Red-eyed Vireo that hit my window; photo taken May 24, 2015
On May 24, I heard a thud on our kitchen window—the smallest window on our house—and ran out to find a Red-eyed Vireo lying on his back on the ground. That window took out a couple of other birds within a few days. I think the neighborhood Merlin must have, for a time, been rocketing in using the same lethal approach, because I don’t think we’ve ever lost any bird at that little window before.

Male and female Red-eyed Vireos are fairly identical, but I was pretty sure this was a male, because one had been singing away just a few minutes before the collision, and now there was silence. I could have peeked under him, looking for the cloacal protuberance that would have confirmed that he was a male, or for a brood patch that would have confirmed the opposite, but I felt too guilty that I’d gotten him in this horrible situation to put him through that indignity.

When I picked the little bird up, he was lethargic and kept one eye mostly closed for quite a while. I put him in a shoebox to let him rest in the darkness, though it seemed hopeless. But a half hour later, he was looking a bit more alert, though one eye wasn’t open as wide as the other yet. When he seemed steady and I started holding him on my finger, he didn’t show any interest at first, but little by little started noticing the lay of the land and turning his head at some bird songs. He grew steadier and more alert, and his left eye started looking a lot better. Finally, he took off and alighted in a box elder in the middle of my yard.

During the hour and a half that the bird was in my care, I did not hear a single burst of song or any other vireo vocalizations from my yard. After he finally flew off, I didn’t hear any songs or calls for a couple of hours or so, but then, suddenly, lovely vireo phrases started drifting into the house again.

The beauty of Red-eyed Vireos is soft and subtle rather than flashy. Their soft colors are accentuated by their eye line, dark-bordered cap, and bold red eye. I took several photos after the little guy looked like he’d make it—it was pretty amazing to get such great looks, even though the reason was such a sad one.

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo eye

Red-eyed Vireos are very common birds, and not particularly shy, but they aren’t the least bit interested in us, so even as they don’t actively avoid us, they aren’t attracted toward us either. They can sing phrase after phrase for a minute or longer without moving their body, but as their face points in different directions, the song seems to jump from place to place so we can have a hard time picking up on their location for close looks. Unlike most songbirds, they’re such persistent singers that we can hear them throughout the morning and afternoon, and they are often heard singing well into August and even early September.

Many decades ago, Roger Tory Peterson estimated that the Red-eyed Vireo was the most abundant songbird over much of the continent due to its abundance in forested habitat. The species continues to be very common, but most ornithologists consider some birds with more generalized habitat needs, such as Red-winged Blackbirds and American Robins, to be much more abundant. This doesn't mean Red-eyed Vireos are in trouble, not by any means. Indeed, their numbers have increased fairly steadily since the Breeding Bird Survey was begun in the 1960s.
There is a 50% chance that any bird that flies off after a collision will end up dead—concussions and subdural hematomas can kill them even days later. But I’ve been hearing what sounds like the same individual Red-eyed Vireo in the yard ever since that day when one hit my window, without any noticeable gaps or any noticeable competitions between two males. As of June 29, he’s still singing away, and I’m hopeful that the persistent male I'm hearing is my special guy. Hope may be the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, but ironically it’s us humans—even well intended ones like me—who hold the power to rob birds of all hope.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Window Collisions Part II

Evening Grosbeak
Evening Grosbeak
Yesterday I discussed some tragic bird deaths at my own house's windows this spring. We had already put bird tape on our worst window—despite that tape, a Pine Siskin and a Blackburnian Warbler died. And a Canada Warbler was killed at the tiniest window on our entire house.

Dead Pine Siskin
Dead little Pine Siskin from May 2015

We had a huge warbler migration fall-out in Duluth this spring, so the death toll was much larger than most years, but then again, last fall we had a similar fall-out, and several birds struck my windows then. Most survived, but research indicates that about 50 percent of the birds that fly off end up dying later from various internal injuries, especially subdural hematomas. One woman found a bunch of dead birds under the windows at the new Duluth Airport, lots of birds were found under windows at UMD, and there were also a bunch of carcasses documented under some of the huge windows at one of Essentia Health’s buildings.

Dead birds picked up at one window at UMD on one day in autumn 2014


On and off, some UMD students have tried to gather information about window strikes in Duluth, but we have never had any kind of consistent long-term study to see just how many birds are killed at our windows in Duluth year after year.

Evening Grosbeak
Evening Grosbeak adult male and two fledglings
Historically, one of the species known to be killed in disproportionately large numbers is the Evening Grosbeak. Its population has now dwindled and even disappeared from much of its range in eastern North America. There are several factors that contributed to the species’ loss, including short rotation cycles to manage northern forests for wood fiber rather than hard woods—one major component of the Evening Grosbeak diet is maple and especially box elder seeds. Controlling spruce budworm has also contributed, because Evening Grosbeaks depend on finding a lot of spruce budworm larvae during the time they’re feeding their young. Because their winter diet is primarily seeds, they also need grit, and large numbers can be killed in car collisions on roads where gritty sand is spread. But window mortality has almost certainly been a major contributing factor.
Evening Grosbeak decline in the central states (including Minnesota and Wisconsin) based on
Breeding Bird Survey numbers.

Dr. Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College has spent his career documenting the carnage and studying how and why birds don’t see glass. For decades he was virtually the only scientist looking at the issue. Ironically, some of his papers were rejected from major journals for no reason except that he cited so many of his own papers in them—entirely because there were no other papers out there to refer to.

Dan has devoted a lot of time and attention to ways we can prevent window kills, too. We need a two-pronged approach, helping homeowners like me to make our already-built windows safer, but also to encourage architects and builders to make new construction safer. Here are photos of some of the strategies we homeowners can use to prevent some of those collisions.

Pileated Woodpecker
Placing feeders directly on windows or within 3 feet of them makes it easier for birds to notice the glass or, if they don't, to be flying too slow on takeoff to be injured seriously.
Evening Grosbeak family group
If you watch this video, notice the young male who reacts to his reflection in the window and then
seems to figure it out.
Bird Screening
Screening on the OUTSIDE of the glass can prevent collisions and,
when birds do collide, can prevent serious injuries. This screening is
sold by the Bird Screen Company.

Bird Screening
Another window with screening from The Bird Screen Company. These two photos were taken
at the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney, Nebraska.
Window covered with taut bird netting at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The netting at the Lab is set a good 6 inches from the window glass,
and works like a trampoline for birds that don't notice it, though
few birds collide at all.
Windows at the EPA's Environmental Research Lab in Duluth, Minnesota
used to kill dozens or hundreds of birds each fall until employees started
putting up netting, suspended from the roof, where it is anchored by heavy
blocks.
You can see how reflective these windows are. The netting makes a huge difference.


This is my husband's hand showing the basic size of the netting.
Here is a photo taken from the inside of the Lab. The netting
doesn't obscure the view much at all.


No matter what we do, as I discovered, none of these methods are 100 percent effective, but they do at least reduce the carnage. But we must also find ways to get people to do the right thing as far as new construction.

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms
Once birds figure out windows, they may even come tap on them to get our attention when
they want the feeder filled.

I’m horrified that the Minnesota Vikings, and the commission Governor Dayton named to design the new stadium, completely blew off the issue despite the fact that the stadium is located in the center of an area famous for its heavy bird migration. The company manufacturing the dangerous glass is also one of the companies that manufacture a fritted glass that is very effective at reducing collisions—and that particular glass is also far, far more energy efficient than the bird-killing glass they’re using. Why they refused to even consider switching early on, when the cost difference would have been minimal, mystifies and frustrates me. Some of my friends insist that we don't need environmental regulations because people are inclined to "do the right thing" entirely on their own, but I sure don't see that.

I wish I knew how to get more attention focused on this issue. In Duluth we’ve had plenty of new construction of huge apartment buildings and hotels in the past decade, and are going to be having a major new project directly under Hawk Ridge, but no one in the city is taking the issue seriously, and those of us who do understand what a serious problem it is feel helpless to change things. Even major environmental organizations focused on birds aren't speaking out about this. Feeling helpless makes us all want to just close our eyes and think about happier things. So my next post will be about something happier—one Red-eyed that hit my window in May that survived—and is apparently doing just fine.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Window Collisions This Spring

Canada Warbler
Canada Warbler (this one is being held by a bird bander just before release)
This spring, during the peak of warbler migration, two windows on my house killed three birds. I found one poor Blackburnian Warbler under the big bay window that had already been covered with special bird-protecting tape—we’re not 100 percent certain it was killed at that window or one upstairs, but based on the bird's position on the ground, I suspect the bay window. And a Canada Warbler was killed at the tiniest window in the house, our kitchen window. A Merlin must have been chasing it or something, because that one made a direct hit, head on at top speed. The tips of both the upper and lower bills were broken. The lower bill was also broken at the base where it met the face on the right side, and the upper bill was broken where it met the face on the left side—blood was dripping from that nostril.

Dead Canada and Blackburnian Warblers
These two birds died on May 18 and 19. 
Both these deaths were horrifying to me. Warblers are such gorgeous birds, and so very tiny. Both these species average little more than a third of an ounce. Blackburnian Warblers winter in Central and northern South America, and Canada Warblers virtually all winter in northern South America.

Range of Blackburnian Warbler, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds (www.allaboutbirds.org)

Range of Canada Warbler, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds (www.allaboutbirds.org)
The straight-line distance from the Panama Canal to Duluth is 2707 miles—the bare minimum each of those birds flew, entirely on his own power—wingbeat after wingbeat for days or weeks, stopping for food here and there, after surviving an entire fall migration down there in the first place, and a full winter competing with hundreds of tropical birds and staying clear of snakes and lizards and an abundance of other predators. They survived all this for nothing more than to smash into a sheet of glass when they were so very close to their final destination, where they could finally fulfill the hormonal imperative that sent them on the long journey in the first place, to raise young.

Blackburnian Warbler
How a Blackburnian Warbler SHOULD look
Any bird death at a window is an obscene waste, but losing tropical migrants seems somehow even more tragic, though when I found a dead Pine Siskin under the same tiny kitchen window I felt just as sad. That window will be first to get some bird-safe collision protection this summer, but we’re also adding something to every window on our house, including the many windows that so far don’t seem to have ever killed a bird during all the 34 years we’ve lived here. Even a single death is too many.

Those were the fatalities, but our windows knocked a few other birds out, too. One Swainson’s Thrush hit the window above our garage door. We hadn’t had a collision with that window in years, but apparently it needs some bird-safe protection against collisions, too. The thrush was stunned for several minutes.

Swainson's Thrush
Swainson's Thrush, still stunned, in a shoebox lined with paper towels. Wadding some of it provides some support before the bird can balance on its own.

My normal technique when a songbird hits a window is to place it in a shoebox, with paper towels on the bottom to give it something textured to grip, and place it in a cool place out of sunlight, checking on it every five minutes or so, but only outdoors, during daylight. The darkness keeps the bird quiet so if it does come out of its stunned condition it won’t panic and reinjure itself. I of course only open the box outdoors in case it has come out of its daze. I feel better about the release if the bird has some time to notice its surroundings and get its bearings before it flies off, so when the bird seems to have good balance and be a little alert, I hold it in my hand to make sure it's gripping evenly on both feet, and then move it to a branch or twig that I hold in my hand.

The thrush stayed in the box for 10 or 15 minutes. When it started looking around somewhat alertly when I opened the box, I carried it in my hand to the center of the yard, away from the house. I took some photos—first, some close-ups in my hand and then on a branch. It took several minutes to look around and get its bearings, and then suddenly took off. Sadly, even when they do take off, they only have a 50 percent chance of survival. Subdural hematomas and other invisible injuries take a significant toll.
Swainson's Thrush
At this point it's perched on a wide twig, getting its bearings.

Some Swainson's Thrushes winter from Mexico through Central America, but most spend the season in South America. Again, this bird flew a long, long way just to hit a window so close to its destination, but at least this one has a good chance of surviving.

Range of Swainson's Thrush, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds (www.allaboutbirds.org)
Even though we can’t prevent all of them, next time I’ll talk about what we can do to reduce the chance of collisions at our windows.
Swainson's Thrush


Sunday, June 21, 2015

My Father's Day Story

(This is not at all about birding [well, except maybe to explain why I take so much solace from birds], and I don't usually reveal much about my childhood. But in light of the news, it's time I did.)

Christmas 1951
My dad, mom, older brother, and me 

I loved my father. That’s important to stipulate from the very start. I have fond memories of him singing “Popeye the Sailor Man” to us, barbecuing chicken for summer picnics, and cooking corned beef and cabbage every year at my grandpa’s birthday party. We were the only kids I knew whose dad was a Chicago firefighter and, for a time, a volunteer firefighter in our blue-collar suburb, Northlake. That was our family’s claim to fame, and we were very proud of it.

My parents (center) have their marriage blessed at St. Ferdinand's church
My dad and mother, flanked by my aunt and uncle, when my parents got married in 1949.
My mother was 17, my dad 19.

My first memory of my dad is a sad one that maybe gives some insight into why I loved and even felt protective of him, and made excuses for him in my heart. I must have been very little, and my dad very young, because we still lived in our two-flat apartment in Chicago—we moved away when I was four and he was 26. He came home from work one morning (the fire department’s 24-hour shifts started and ended at 8 am). This was the only time I can ever remember him coming home covered with soot and smelling smoky—he’d usually take a shower at the fire hall before he left. I was in the kitchen with my mother, who was standing at the sink with her back to the rest of the room, and he walked in as if in a daze, picked me up ever so gently, sat down with me on his lap, and started rocking and crying, his body heaving with sobs. The tears ran down his sooty face in glistening streaks.

He started talking about the fire, and how a woman in the street was screaming “My babies! My babies!” over and over, and how he and his partner searched everywhere, and finally found the two little children huddled, dead, in a closet. He did artificial respiration, but “We couldn’t make them come alive again.” He buried his face in my hair. By then, I was crying, too. My mother turned from the sink to face him and said coldly, “If you’re going to do a man’s job, you damned well better grow up and be a man, you motherless bastard.” He kissed me tenderly on the top of my head, softly put me down, and walked out.

So for understandable reasons, my dad wasn’t around much after that. Even during the periods when he and my mother were married and sort of getting along, his 24-hour shifts as a Chicago firefighter kept him away one out of every three nights, and he was often gone on other nights as well—he’d explain that he’d had to work someone else’s shift. He got my mother pregnant six times in eight years, but the fact that none of us had fall birthdays bore testament to the fact that he missed a lot of Christmases. Back then the firemen each were assigned a number from one to three, and the big fire department calendar on our kitchen wall showed which were work days for his number, but when he was supposed to have Christmas off, he’d tell us about some poor fireman whose children needed their daddy on Christmas, so he’d traded days with him. I’d try to feel compassion for those poor children, never, at the time, thinking that maybe five little Farleys needed their own daddy on Christmas, or that maybe he was not really working on those days. I also tried not to think about how he was leaving us pretty much defenseless with my mother. When that did occur to me, I justified it, because what could he do?

Truth to tell, things were a bit more peaceful when he wasn’t around. We had developed strategies for appeasing my mother's rage or at least diverting her attention, but when he showed up, all bets were off. Our strategies weren’t 100 percent effective—I wore tights and long sleeves to school even on hot days to cover the welts and bruises. Like most children in this situation, I was ashamed, knowing if anyone saw them they’d know what a bad little girl I must be.

My mother’s constant bitterness and unpredictable rages pervaded our every waking moment and seeped into our dreams, so I usually felt more sympathy for my dad than for her. And I could muster that sympathy for him, on and off, as long as he lived. But I remember the exact moment, and the exact place, when I learned that my father was a bad human being. I still loved him—what was my alternative? But just as had happened with my mother years before, I suddenly could see my father through clearer, more objective eyes, and things were never the same again.

I may remember the moment, but I don’t remember exactly what year this happened. It was one of the only times my dad was around when my mother wasn’t, and it happened after we moved to Northlake, so I’m pretty sure it was while she was in the hospital after her miscarriage in 1956 or 57, when I was four or five. My dad had to do some grocery shopping at Dominick’s, and either left the other kids alone—my parents often left all five of us on our own—or my grandpa or uncle was there helping and didn’t think he could manage all five of us by himself. I was too old to ride in the shopping cart, and my dad didn’t want me to slow him down, so he brought me to the cereal aisle and told me to stay put and not move a muscle until he came back.

The store wasn’t busy, so there wasn’t much to look at besides cereal boxes, but they were colorful and cheery. Kix. Cheerios. Sugar Smacks. Rice Krispies. Corn Flakes. Eventually a shopping cart turned into the aisle. The first thing I saw was the little toddler inside—she was laughing and clapping, but what arrested my attention was her hair. It was dark brown like mine, and tied up in what looked like hundreds of little pigtails (looking back, I’d say at least a dozen) each lovingly tied in a pretty pink bow. Her daddy was pushing the shopping cart, and he pulled it up right by me, next to the Cheerios. That’s when I saw her face—she had the biggest, happiest smile I’d ever seen on anybody except on TV. She was having more fun than I’d ever dreamed a little girl could have with her daddy, at least in real life.

He reached down and pulled her out of the cart, holding her up to the cereal boxes that seemed almost as big as her, and told her to help him pick one. She opened her pudgy arms wide and pulled out a box of Cheerios. He wheeled her around so she could drop it into the basket as they both laughed. As he tenderly placed her back in the little seat in the cart, he noticed me watching them, looked right into my eyes, and gave me a warm, friendly smile, his eyes crinkling. For one beautiful moment, perhaps the most perfect moment of my entire childhood, I felt drawn in and included—a part of that happy little family.

The next moment everything shifted horribly. He started pushing the shopping cart away, straight toward where my father was turning into the aisle, facing them directly.

In the Little Golden Book, Sleeping Beauty, when the evil Maleficent shows up at the christening, “the room darkened suddenly. A chill wind swept through it. And a shudder passed over the crowd.” My grandpa gave me that book a couple of years later, and when I read those words, the memory of that moment flooded my mind. The instant he saw that man and his little daughter, my father's eyes filled with fury and naked hatred, and every bit of joy and cheer drained from the man’s face. Instantly, it was filled with fear and a kind of impotent anger that bewildered and frightened me. I was horrified to realize my father wielded a profoundly unfair power over this stranger. He wheeled the cart around in retreat as my father charged forward, sputtering too, too audibly, “It’s bad enough the niggers took over the city. Now they’re invading the suburbs.”

Like a lightning bolt, I was struck with a shocking realization. Those horror stories my father came home from work telling us about, using that ugly word over and over, weren’t about faceless, monstrous bogymen—he’d been talking about this warm, friendly man, and this tiny child, and people just like them!

I couldn’t see the little girl in the shopping cart or the man’s face now—just his rapidly retreating figure from behind. As he turned the cart around the corner at the end of the aisle, I saw the child crying. I wanted so badly to catch their eyes—to somehow convey to them that I wasn’t like that—I was nice—please take me home with you, far, far away from ugly cruelty and mean-spiritedness. Please.

Five years old is too young for children to face the harsh truth that their father can be horrifyingly, cruelly, absolutely wrong about something so important. I suppose it was easier for me to accept, having learned that same lesson about my mother at an even younger age.

My whole life, I’ve been haunted by memories of this brief encounter. I often wonder what became of that man and his little girl. She was so little—only about two or three. Could she have forgotten all about it? Did she carry away a vague, inchoate sense of dark menace lurking all about that could pop up anywhere? Could a box of Cheerios trigger bad memories? Did she grow up scared of every white man? Did her daddy teach her to not be prejudiced—to understand that not every white person was like that? How would she know which was which? She’d be in her late fifties now—sixty-one at the oldest. How has she negotiated this world in which we pretend as much as we can that racism is dead, that the bad white people, even the ones in positions of power, are mere outliers? Does she have children? Grandchildren? Can she sleep at night before they’re all accounted for?

And what about her daddy? Did he encounter other people like my father—people who hated him for simply being? My father’s temper and lack of filters may have made him something of an outlier, but I knew plenty of grownups who shared his attitudes. Did the man in the grocery store develop some kind of radar to anticipate ugly encounters before they happened? Even if he somehow developed thick enough skin to deal with bizarre and random attacks on himself with equanimity, how infuriating it must have been to not be able to protect his tiny daughter from such ugliness. How did he deal with that anger?

And what about me? I have always been haunted by a vague but pressing feeling that I owe these two people a heavy debt impossible to pay. I feel complicit, by virtue of blood, by virtue of my inability to change my own father’s mind and heart, and by virtue of living in a system that protected me from that kind of horrible encounter thanks to nothing more than my skin color. Never once have I entered a grocery store, or any other place, and been viciously assaulted with ugly words just for being there.  

Are the sins of the father visited upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation?

Every time I read yet another news story about a hot-headed white man murdering yet another black child, I can’t help but think of my dad. On this Father’s Day weekend, so soon after a 21-year-old terrorist gunned down nine people in their church, my response to the news is filtered through memories of him.

We—family and friends, society at large—every one of us is personally responsible for reining in that kind of hatred long before innocent people are killed; long before it can even erupt in ugly words shot like bullets at innocents in a grocery store. Some people, virtually all white, feel a magical distance between themselves and racial tension. Of course they’re not racists! This wasn’t their fault! When they listen to Rush Limbaugh spewing hatred or NRA spokesmen disingenuously saying the victims should have been armed; when they defend the tradition of the Confederate flag, that treasured symbol embraced by the Ku Klux Klan, I can’t help but think of the Prince saying "See what a scourge is laid upon your hate," as he gazed upon the young bodies of Romeo, Juliet, and Tybalt. He had tolerated the strife between the two families, not intervening to stop the hateful exchanges, and now was wracked with guilt for his complicity. “And I, for winking at your discords, too, Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punished.”

I think of the words of Thomas Jefferson:
Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.
Is Jefferson’s bleak forecast the only way this can end, or simply the only way he could imagine two centuries ago? He could not envision the many messages of peace from Martin Luther King in the ‘60s, or the gentle forgiveness bestowed on the murderous Dylann Roof by so many grieving members of the families of his victims on this sorrowful Father's Day weekend. But as long as we white people live in complacency, even as our society is diminished by the losses of so many innocent compatriots, I fear for worse to come, those memories of my father’s hatred so vividly flashing through my mind.

He had a hair-trigger temper. Several times we kids were along in the car on the Illinois Tollway when, incited by some perceived transgression by the driver ahead of him, he’d speed up to “tap” the guy’s rear bumper, over and over. My mother and siblings would laugh—either thinking that playing bumper cars at 80 mph was funny or as an involuntary response to fear—as he lowered his head at the wheel, a raging bull muttering obscenities and roaring the engine. After he’d forced the car over to the shoulder, he’d yell a victorious whoop as he sped past, giving the hapless driver the finger, and it would take an hour or more before he cooled down. He made the newspaper in 1965 when he punched a judge during the hearings for his divorce from his second wife. And when he became an ambulance driver for the fire department, he often came home boasting of leaving someone “bleeding on the street” after they “mouthed off” to him or his partner—“those people” had to “show some respect.”

The NRA today targets their message at people exactly like him. They fan the flames of paranoia and hatred to ensure that more and more gun purchases enrich the corporate manufacturers they represent. They weren’t like this in the 50s and 60s—back then they were a true membership organization focused primarily on sportsmen. My father, like most city people who weren't hunters of that time, never owned a gun. So I can console myself with this: at least my father never outright murdered anyone. If he were a young man today, he’d be armed to the hilt.

I argued a lot with him, about racism and other topics, as I got older, but little by little I gave up, resigned to hopelessness. When I started my first teaching job in Madison, Wisconsin, my father asked if I had any niggers in my class. I was so stunned by the audacious obscenity of the question that all I could blurt out was an indignant “No.” When he later saw photos of my beloved students displayed in our apartment, he said, “I thought you said you didn’t have any niggers in your class.” I looked him dead in the eye and said, “I don’t.” He looked uncomfortable—I hope I made him feel ashamed, but I’ll never know. That was the last time I saw him alive.

He died when he was fifty from a massive heart attack. I cried and cried, mourning for all he couldn’t be rather than for all he was, and filled with grief about the debt I would never be able to repay to people I would never be able to find, and to the many people just like them who were victimized by an ugliness that is an undeniable part of my family heritage, a dark stain that will not wash clean.

My own first child was born a year after my father's death. If we are to honor all the happy traditions of our families with joy and share them with our children, each one who started out as a baby and toddler just like that sweet little one in the grocery store, mustn't we first acknowledge and sweep out the dark corners of that family heritage? Or will our children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation, be born into a world still infected by this evil hatred? What are we, as individuals and as a people, prepared to do?

So on this Father’s Day, as I read so many loving messages from friends about their fathers and the valuable lessons they learned from them, I’m finally writing about my own father.  I loved him, and I learned valuable lessons from him. May God have mercy on his soul, and on mine.