An Urban Wildlife Mystery

One evening last spring, my friend Christopher and I sat on the sidewalk in front of my apartment building in Columbia. Traffic dwindled on the five-lane road in front of my house, and we admired the pink- and purple-streaked sky over the M.U. physics building across the street.I pointed to a dozen or so birds hovering high in the sky. Sometimes we lost sight of them, but usually we could see several at once hanging or ever-so slowly arching through the sky. They hovered until-with the gentlest tip of a wing-each bird began a wild and breathless dive. Wings tucked back, they plummeted headlong. In the moment before hitting the ground, they pulled up gracefully and leveled off, skimming parallel to the ground or sometimes along the rooftop of the physics building. Off they'd go again, rising higher and higher to start over. When it was too dark to see them anymore, Christopher told me a story.

A "Thump" in the Night

It was about 1 a.m. on a spring night four years ago; he had finished work and was on his way home. It was chilly out, and he was walking faster than usual. He heard an odd ruffling of leaves just as he passed beneath a Kentucky coffee tree, one of several planted in rows along some of Columbia's numbered, downtown streets. The ruffling escalated and he hesitated.

Something air-borne swooped out of the darkness and thwacked him on the back of the head-hard. It tussled for a second with his pony tail, then disappeared. Christopher lunged to a crouch and peered into the dark branches. Seeing or hearing nothing, he straightened up, ran his fingers gingerly through his pony tail and went home to bed.

On the very next night, it happened again. He was bewildered, a little spooked and extremely curious about what had attacked him. On the third night, he walked slowly but firmly, back straight, eyes wide open. He kept his pace steady as he approached the spot where the mysterious thing had clipped him.

Thwack! His head pitched forward, his pony tail swished, and he spun around, only to think he may have seen a flying creature whisk away to the darkness above the street lamps.

He went home and snipped off his pony tail with a pair of scissors, and tied off the new end with a rubber band from his desk. He attached the long hair to the