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The Parrots of January

In this excerpt from Their Mysterious Ways, heavenly birds chase away a woman’s winter blues.

close-up of a vibrant green parrot

The 7th of January and already the excitement of starting a new year had faded. All that seemed to remain of Christmas? A brittle, dried-up balsam tree in a corner of my living room.

I took down the ornaments, unraveled the strings of lights and unhooked the star from the top. I pulled the cardboard storage boxes out of the closet and got to work. Yes, the holiday season was over, and I had a serious case of wintertime blues.

Bundled in a thick coat and scarf, and a knitted wool hat with earflaps, I trudged down my stoop in heavy boots. The New York City Parks Department had been hosting a “Mulchfest” for 10 years, and this year there was a site at historic Green-Wood Cemetery, just blocks away.

I didn’t really feel like going out, but I loved the idea of mulch from my tree nourishing plantings around the city. I suppose it’s not every day you see someone pushing a red, wire-mesh shopping cart loaded up with an expired Christmas tree down Fifth Avenue, the “Main Street” of my Brooklyn neighborhood.

My neighbor Mrs. Arroyo broke into a big grin when she saw me coming. Leaning in front of their corner grocery store, the Zawisny brothers did a double take.

Despite the bitter cold—the temperature hovered just a few degrees above freezing—the sun shone brightly on the citizens of Greenwood Heights. I just wished it could do a better job warming me up.

The high, ornate spires of the cemetery’s Gothic gatehouse rose before me up a slight hill, like a vision from the cover of a Victorian novel. I followed the handwritten signs to the mulching station and looped my cart around the path. A small group of people had gathered in bulky parkas and mufflers, watching their trees go through the chipper. I couldn’t bear to look. I dropped mine off, and turned toward home, but something stopped me in my tracks.

Grr-rak! Grrak!” I heard. What was that? Definitely not a pigeon—nor was it a sparrow, nor a starling. It was utterly unlike the sound of any of the birds I knew from nearly a lifetime in the city. I looked up and could hardly believe my eyes: In the trees I spied more than a dozen diminutive, vivid-green parrots with pale-gray bellies and yellow beaks, perched on bare branches. I heard more squawking coming from the gatehouse spires. Way up in carved stone niches, tiny emerald heads poked out of nests. “Grr-rak! Grrak! Grr-rak!

Wild parrots! In the middle of Brooklyn? In January?

I’d heard stories about wild parrots in the city from time to time when I was growing up. I’d almost written them off as urban legends—like the albino crocodiles that are said to dwell in the sewers beneath Manhattan. But there the parrots were, in all their colorful glory. The birds flew swiftly and gracefully from the spires to the trees and back again, chattering exuberantly the whole time. All the folks who had come to have their trees mulched lifted their heads to the skies, including me.

“There’s another one!” a little girl said to her dad, pointing up.

“Ah, yes,” a knowledgeable Brooklynite explained, “I believe they are members of the species Myiopsitta monachus—monk parrots.”

They certainly weren’t as quiet as monks, but still, the name seemed just right: There was something magical, something sacred even, about their unexpected presence in the midst of a hectic metropolis on a cold January day. Soon every last person in this group of strangers was riveted by the parrots’ antics. They were natural entertainers. Each bird seemed to have its own distinctive personality. How could I possibly go home? Suddenly, it didn’t even feel so cold outside anymore, though the temperature hadn’t risen at all.

I lingered at Green-Wood for the better part of an hour, observing the parrots swoop and play and fuss over their elaborately crafted nests. Amid the skyscrapers and subways and hustle and bustle of the city, I often feel distant from nature, detached. Yet somehow I’d found nature—or it had found me—less than 10 blocks from home. I thought of those three startling words from a poem by William Wordsworth, later used by C.S. Lewis as the title of his memoir: Surprised by Joy. That’s exactly how I felt.

Joy. It can be difficult to sustain the joy held out by the holidays, the feelings of wonder and astonishment. I thought I’d let those feelings slip beyond my grasp. But the wild parrots of Brooklyn reminded me that all things are possible. Even in the city nature is never far away, and always ready to surprise us with the powerful joy that it is uniquely and beautifully equipped to bestow.

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