I grew up under a flight path. In the backyard of my childhood home, we could read the letters on the bellies of the planes coming in for a landing at New York’s Kennedy airport. Between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m., the incoming planes would wake our houseguests, but we never heard them. And at 10:00 in the morning, the vibrations of the outgoing Concorde would trigger car alarms that weren’t calibrated just right.
On a Saturday morning in August, in the midst of a pandemic, I discovered that I’m living under a flight path now too. Just before dawn, I woke in a sweltering Jerusalem apartment, realized the heatwave had broken, and trudged upstairs to our attic room to open the windows and create a cross breeze. It was when I flung open the heavy metal doors to our rooftop that I saw them: wave after wave of birds, all flying south, zipping high overhead and dipping down occasionally over the park between our home and the nearby towers before vanishing over the tree-covered hilltops at the city’s outer limit.
They were powerful, determined, and magnificent.
During the weeks that followed, I would rise early on Shabbat mornings to watch the bird show. It began just before sunrise. I stood on my rooftop, draped in a blanket to protect me from the chill, and watched the sky over the mountains in the west turn from deep purple to lavender to blue. When the sun started reflecting off the windows in the distance, creating tiny bursts of bright light amidst the pink and gold Jerusalem stone, the birds welled up in the north. The tiny dots fanned across the sky in sprawling V’s and W’s, becoming larger as they neared, until they finally whooshed by, zooming over my Jerusalem neighborhood, Arnona, and heading toward the Dead Sea. Their black silhouettes glistened with gold outlines as the sun rose, and their wings beat with a steady pulse. Sometimes they would fly directly above me, low overhead. I heard the thrum of their wings and felt the push of the air as they sliced through it. It was enthralling.
The flyover continued for about 20 minutes, peaking just as the tops of the two high-rise buildings in front of me caught the sun’s rays. By the time the twin towers were drenched halfway down in blazing light, the air show ended as abruptly as it had started.
I needed to know more about the birds. During the week, I scoured the internet, looking for birds with a similar shape and reading about migration patterns, in a quest to determine who they were and where they were going. Eventually, I concluded that they were swifts, migratory birds that have been making their way to Jerusalem for the last 2,000 years, arriving from Africa in February and heading home as fall approaches. The city is home to thousands and some 90 pairs nest in the cracks of the Western Wall. During the first lockdown, they were filmed doing an eerie aerial dance over the Kotel plaza, taking it over in the absence of people, who were forbidden to gather in prayer to prevent the spread of the plague. As the summer drew to a close, the swifts must have been going home.
I learned whatever I could about swifts. These monogamous birds, which sleep and eat on the fly, are thought not to land between one breeding season and the next. They can stay in the air for 10 months at a time, and hold the record for longest continuous flight. Like their name, they are speedy, and can fly up to 69 miles (111 km) per hour. As I watched them during my new Saturday routine, I wondered how quickly they were flying when they zoomed overhead.
In September, when my commute to work disappeared during Israel’s second lockdown, I took advantage of the time I gained in the morning and began watching the birds during the week as well. They flew in large groups that filled the air, with barely a break between when one group vanished in the south and the next group rose in the north. Every once in a while, a straggler flying on her own would hurry to catch up with the others. “Hey, wait for me!” I could hear her call. Occasionally, an errant flier would break off from the kit and fly in the opposite direction. He no doubt had forgotten his keys.
As they soared overhead, I envied their freedom, their ability to travel, the distances they covered. I wondered if they noticed the change in the landscape from year to year. Did they remember the cherry trees that once grew where the towers now stand? Did they notice the tents and awnings that served as makeshift outdoor synagogues for the High Holidays? I wondered how their flocks were organized, who their leaders were, and how decisions were made. Down below, we were organized in opposing tribes, our leaders were failing us, and we weren’t doing a particularly good job of keeping each other safe.
In late October, it struck me that this was a particularly long migration. I reached out to the Israel Ornithological Center through its website and asked about the behavior of the swifts. The answer, received from Yoav Perlman, was soon forthcoming. “Your description,” he wrote, “does not match the behavior of swifts. In addition, they left Israel quite a long time ago and are now back in Africa. I imagine that what you are seeing is domestic pigeons. Could you take a picture of them?”
The birds that sit on statues and hang out in public squares, scavenging for leftovers?
Impossible! I would have to prove otherwise.
The photography challenge required reinforcements. I had actually tried to capture images of the flyby a number of times, hoping to hold on to the memory, but had been unsuccessful. I recruited my saintly husband. Together we braved the early morning chill, armed with a camera and several zoom lenses. Click after click yielded a series of photos of blurred black dots. But when I enlarged one image as much as I could, it emerged that the bird’s black body was actually mostly light gray. And there, around the neck of one bird, was a telltale shimmer of teal and purple.
I had indeed been waking up at the crack of dawn for weeks to watch none other than pigeons, who were simply headed out of the city each morning to look for food.
The revelation of the birds’ true identity put a damper on my desire to rise early to watch them and I abandoned my morning activity. But after some time, I began to wonder about my own prejudices. Why was the same activity mesmerizing when I thought I was observing exotic visitors from a far-off land, but uninspiring when I knew that it was being done by common pigeons?
I remembered lovely images of pigeons past. On our honeymoon, my husband used up an entire roll of film as he tried to catch an inflight photo of pigeons outside the Vatican, and was thrilled when he finally succeeded. Years later, we marveled at a Parisian covered in pigeons as he fed them at the Place de la Concorde. And it was fascinating to watch Mr. and Mrs. Pigeon raise their babies on the windowsill of one of our previous homes and to see fledglings learn to fly.
But pigeons are pigeons, and I had no desire to leave my warm blankets to watch the them fly over my apartment in the morning again.
Until the third lockdown.
It was on a Shabbat morning, a week after I had gotten my second vaccine. I had said every prayer and incantation possible before getting my first Pfizer jab, and repeated the ritual after getting the second. But when a full week had passed after my second inoculation, on the miraculous morning when I was now officially immune, I had no way to mark the event. I woke up early, feeling exactly the same as always but with the strange awareness that I should now be able to withstand the coronavirus. After almost a year of precautions and isolation, I could dream of reuniting with my family face to face, and could envision a time when limitations on movement could be lifted. Once again, we could think of flying. My spirits soared, and it struck me that this was an occasion to share with the birds.
So up to the rooftop I went, just before sunrise, bundled up to keep warm in the brisk winter air. The cloud-streaked sky turned from deep purple to lavender to blue, and the sun began to bounce off the windows in the distance. The tops of the towers caught the sun’s rays. By now the flyover should have been well underway, but no black dots rose up in the north.
The bird world around me, however, was wide awake. The tree alongside our building was alive with the twitter of sparrows and chatter of bulbuls, and danced as they darted between its branches. The air was filled with the bubbly squeals of sunbirds, the laughing call of doves, and the piercing cry of mynas – sounds that I would not have recognized before the pandemic. A Eurasian jay swooped by in a blaze of blue, and a pair of ringed-necked parakeets zoomed overhead – sights that I would not have been able to identify before the world started shutting down. A handful of pigeons dotted the red tile roof of the building next door, but their hungry relatives were nowhere to be seen.
When the nearby towers were fully drenched in sunlight and I was about to give up, it started. A group of tiny specks rose up in the distance. As they got closer, now in full daylight, their pigeon identity was unmistakable. Their bodies were gray, not black, and shimmered in the sunlight as they zipped by. Wave after wave began to pass by overhead, with a bit less intensity than I had remembered. The birds seemed a bit wobbly as they soared over the tower tops and dipped between the buildings, buffeted by the winter wind, but they continued resolutely in their flight out of town. The handful of pigeons from the roof next door, one a white dove, rose up to join them. I took it as a good sign.
As I stood in the cold Jerusalem air with the bright sun warming my back, a low flying group zoomed directly above me. I heard the thrum of their wings and felt the push of the air as they sliced through it. The pigeons were ordinary, but they were doing something extraordinary, going about their daily routine with their friends and family, and soaring as they did so.
My heart soared with them. And it was glorious.