Sometimes you get a little bonus and a typical, everyday history tour turns into a history tour and wildlife safari. I had an 11am tour with a family of four today. We strolled into Oglethorpe Square and I pointed to the Owens-Thomas house, but stopped short before launching into my usual spiel about the place. There was a bird of prey perched on a parking sign right at the edge of the square. It looked too small and sleek to be a red-tailed hawk (which are quite common all over town), so I'm pretty sure it was some sort of falcon. Don't see those downtown very often! As we moved toward that side of the square to get a closer view of the house, the bird flapped across the street and made itself comfortable on the balustrade near the front gate for a little while before taking off on its own raptor business. It's funny the number of wild encounters you can have in the Historic District if you're there often enough and you pay attention. I was leading a tour group through Chippewa Square once when one of the regular homeless guys came up to us and pointed out a hoot owl sitting on the branch of an oak tree above our heads. I see red-tailed hawks with surprising regularity all over the place. There was even a pair who decided to nest on a ledge outside a window of the Hampton Inn and Suites last year. The paper ran a story about it. One day, in Monterey Square, I watched a red-tail weave and maneuver about two feet above the ground in a high-speed chase after a squirrel-flavored lunch. What surprised me most was the squirrel got away. I guess pure fear for your fluffy rodent life is like a nitro-boost for squirrels.
So, the exotic creatures like hawks and falcons and owls are undoubtedly cool. But even the more mundane denizens of downtown sometimes manage to be charming. I notice bats zipping around overhead every time I walk through City Market at night. I can hear their high-pitched chittering. I think it's one of those frequencies people lose the ability to hear past a certain age. Maybe that's why no one but me looks for them. Every bat I spot reminds me the number of mosquitoes will be that much smaller by the end of the night. There's a beehive I've been watching for two years in an oak tree in the median of Oglethorpe Avenue. It's directly across from the Ballastone Inn. Every bee makes me think there will be that many more flowers to enjoy year after year. I'm glad they made their home in the middle of the road and out of the way of pedestrians, otherwise I'm sure someone would have had them removed or exterminated by now. Considering the potentially disastrous consequences of Colony Collapse Disorder, every bee should basically be considered sacred.
Then there are the super-mundane animal inhabitants that roam from square to square: squirrels, pigeons, and other unglamorous birds. Even the fluff-rats and sky-rats manage to be amusing now and again. Well, I can't think of many stories involving pigeons, except this one I rescued on River Street once. It was several years ago. I was relaxing between tours and watching a bunch of pigeons splashing around in one of the fountains down there. One of them was really getting into it and completely soaked himself. I actually thought, "If something startles those birds and that one tries to take off, he's going to flop right into the fountain and drown." Sure enough, something sent the pigeons scattering into the air, all except the one who was sopping wet already. He went slap! right into the deep water around the base of the fountain. That bird was doomed. I walked over there to fish him out and the stupid squab kept splashing around and paddling out of my reach. I finally managed to scoop him up and dump him in some bushes to dry off. Stupid bird.
Squirrels are kind of prone to incidental cuteness. They're squirrels- they can hardly help it. Minding my own business while sauntering through Oglethorpe Square one day, I heard this loud rustling from one of the trashcans. I looked and up popped a squirrel's little grey head! He flew out of the trashcan with his freshly scavenged loot and up into the nearest tree. The squirrels around here have become just as expert trash-pickers as the homeless, I guess. Another day, I saw a squirrel in Reynolds Square munching on a Pringles potato chip that a person on a nearby bench had given him. I wonder if even rodents are destined to become part of the obesity statistics in the South? The funniest squirrel I ever saw, though, was the one doing nothing at all. I stretched out on a bench in Warren Square to relax between tours one day. It was on the south end where the oak branches swoop down very low. While lying there, I suddenly noticed a squirrel directly above my face doing exactly the same thing. He was snoozing belly-down on a branch with his little legs splayed on either side of it. Well, I guess he could have been dead, but I'm just going to tell myself he was asleep. A dead squirrel would have fallen off the branch, right?
Being a tour guide has made me realize that some critters I take for granted are still new and exciting to people who aren't from around here. Australians tend to get all loopy over the squirrels because they don't have those Down Under. I think every harmless critter that once lived in Australia was eaten long ago by all the deadly things that exclusively inhabit the place now. I even get upstaged by lizards, those common little green or brown lizards, whenever I have Yankees on the tour. Then I remember reptiles do not thrive in cold climates, so to see lizards casually climbing up every vine must seem so foreign and thrilling to Northerners. I think the real thrill comes later on, though, when they realize how big the roaches get down here....
So, look out for the six-legged wildlife, kiddos!