Enchantment: Learning the Birds

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

“But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you;

and the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you.”

Job 12:7

My granddaughter is five months old. As the world comes alive for her, she seems to be especially drawn to birds. Only the other day we were together on her back patio, closely observing a nearby arbor covered with confederate jasmine, our attention riveted by an invisible cheeping of mockingbird chicks. As we watched, one fledgling head popped up. Stretch of stubby wings, then its whole self. It clambered out of the nest—so bold, ready to get on with things. As it swaggered across the broken trellis-top of the arbor, I said, “Be careful little one, lest you…” As if on cue, it fell through the trellis to the ground below. Oh well, no harm done, save to the feelings of its vigilant parent.

 

Having hit the grass and regained its poise, the chick leapt into action, striding on strong legs—straight toward us! Parent mocker didn’t like this one bit, but the chick kept coming, until it stood close to my feet. On my lap, my granddaughter stared down, taking this in. If she can hold the image long enough, it will make a good nature report for school.

 

Oh my darling girl, my heart is full to find myself in this world and you in my lap as I tell the good news: This baby bird you behold is Mimus polyglottos. Mimic of many tongues. His bird-family is called Mimidae.

 

Mimidae. There’s something about a mimid! Southeast Texas yards abound with these long-tailed songbird cousins. Mockingbirds, gray catbirds, brown thrashers: In common, their gift for midrashing on the songs and sounds of other birds. Also their diet; all three forage for fruits and arthropods. As to personality [per-sonare: a unique sounding forth!] they are different.  In a mocker, we have a zealous military type, winging resolutely about his realm, flashing territorial. No visible sense of humor. Catbirds skulk in hedgerows, veiling their persons and their opinions. Ditto for thrashers. But thrashers will emerge from stealth-mode long enough to visit a birdbath, or sit atop the occasional lamppost, radiant in their chestnut, and their golden eyes.

 

And oh can a mimid sing! You will come to know the outpouring of a mocker, how he finds a rooftop or a power line in plain view where he pours forth phrases he’s invented or learned from others. His rule is to repeat each phrase several times, with a significant pause between series. It’s quite regimented. A thrasher or catbird, on the other hand, is more circumspect in his perch, and free-form in his vocal offering. As to catbirds, think burbling brook as the world wakes up. I’m not so familiar with the thrasher-song. We’ll have to ask your great uncle, who’s made a study of the matter.

 

In physical form, all three mimids have a clean-lined elegance I admire.

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