The Poets’ Birds ~ The Shy and Silent Ones

Juvenile yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea)


That it was shy when alive goes without saying.
We know it vanished at the sound of voices

Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises,
Though it could be approached by someone praying.

We have no recordings of it, though of course
In the basement of the Museum, we have some stuffed

Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed
And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.

But its song is lost. If it was related to
A species of Quiet, or of another feather,

No researcher can know. Not even whether
A breeding pair still nests deep in the bayou,

Where legend has it some once common bird
Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.

                                The Extinction of Silence ~  A.E. Stallings


Comments always are welcome.

79 thoughts on “The Poets’ Birds ~ The Shy and Silent Ones

  1. That made me think of the spring peeper frogs. One can only get so close before they go silent and invisible. Do they really exist?

    1. It’s true, isn’t it? Finding one of those peepers can be nearly impossible. On the other hand, I’ve looked and looked for frogs around some of our ponds, and rarely see a single one. Only the sudden splash and plop when they jump says, “Yes, I was here. But now I’m gone.”

    1. Of course you’d like the “shy and silent ones,” Nia. You do a fine job yourself of discovering their comings and goings through your world, and recording them for us. I’m happy you enjoyed this.

    1. Just this week, our cicadas have begun chirring. On the other hand, the doves and mockingbirds have become nearly silent: busy with raising families, I assume, and not so interested in showing off or attracting a mate. But the rushes and cattails are growing tall and dense — just right for hiding a shy and cautious little bird.

  2. I mentioned to someone the fact that every day we are losing species, and she grimaced and said, “I don’t want to hear about that…”
    It sometimes makes me sad, the lack of empathy for other species that have as much right as we – perhaps more, as they are the innocents.

    Love the Night Heron image! It’s so very different from the adult, yet there it is, lurking in the safety of the ‘segua’ and learning as much as possible about the good guys and the bad ones.

    1. Perhaps the person you mention lacked empathy, or perhaps it was only that, at that time, she couldn’t bear to hear any more. There are rhythms to everything in life, and no one can be concerned about everything, all the time. Disengagement and reengagement are as necessary as breathing in and breathing out: or so it seems to me.

      The night herons are my favorites. The black-crowned fill the lines of the marina at night, and when they’re disturbed at their fishing, their raucous cries make me laugh.

      1. Thanks for that feedback; yes, there are rhythms… how well I remember long ago when I stated to a neighbor, “I don’t think I can take any more…” it had been a very challenging year, and my heart was heavy.

        Yes, I laughed when you mentioned the herons’ raucous cries. The can belt out a loud burst of protest!

    1. They’re completely delightful. They tend to be solitary, and often feed along the ditches during the day. They prefer crabs and crawfish, so they’re pretty common around marshes and wetlands, or even wet areas of the prairies. A young one like this can stand without moving for a good long time. I suppose it’s a defense mechanism.

  3. Such detail on this photo! Love his golden eyes and speckled feathers. Lovely poem as well — an interesting style that I haven’t tried yet.

    1. Isn’t that eye something? I was afraid I’d disturb him as I moved around, trying to find a spot where the plants didn’t obscure his profile. But he didn’t move a feather, and all was well.

      I only recently began to read Stallings. I enjoy much of her poetry, but I think you’d like this very short article by her, too. It’s called “The Freedom of Amateurs”.

      1. Excellent article! She makes some good points, especially the one about memorizing good poetry so it infuses us. Perhaps that’s why, as kids, we had to memorize and recite poetry, much to my angst then but even now I still recall some!

    1. Because these are smaller than the great blue heron, they’re sometimes discounted, but I think the adults are elegant birds. Even better, they can be found nearly everywhere in my part of the county, because they like to eat crawfish, and we have crawfish galore!

  4. A pair of these herons flys over the back porch almost daily. Their barking call is almost impossible to forget. Beautiful capture. Love the words you chose to go with the image…

    1. Lucky you, to have a resident pair! You’re right about their call. They’re no song birds, in the traditional sense, but they do make their presence known. As for this youngster, its behavior made me think of a fawn. I don’t know, but suspect that “freezing in place” is a defense mechanism. It’s something else to explore. I thought Stallings’s poem was perfect, on several levels.

    1. It’s true, isn’t it? Every heron — even the small green ones we have during part of the year — is compelling. Whether they’re in flight or just hanging around, there’s something about them that makes us stop and look. Perhaps, if we look long enough, we’ll begin to understand how truly valuable they are.

    1. The good news is that the population of these birds is stable, although there’s a lot that’s not known about them. I’ve only found one nest, and it was in a live oak on the edge of a marina. I never would have seen it, had I not been working on a nearby boat, and finally noticed a lot of twig-carrying going on. Being shy, silent, and secretive does have its advantages. Species that humans notice don’t always come to a good end: they just come to an end.

    1. Stallings is relatively young, and she’s only published three volumes of verse, as I recall. But I like what I’ve read, and appreciate her sensitivity to the natural world.

      I like the night herons because their young are easier to spot. They don’t live in colonies, but scatter their nests here and there, so they often become part of the neighborhood — like Harry and Harriet. You haven’t seen any young ones up there, have you? It might be a little early, but there are rookeries all through Michigan, so it’s possible you could have an enlarging family on your hands.

    1. There’s quite a history of human ineptitude (or ignorance, or ill-will), isn’t there? On the other hand, there have been species brought back from near-extinction thanks to a different and more positive sort of human intervention. When it comes to birds, I think of the egrets, who finally were granted the right to keep their feathers, rather than having them adorn women’s hats.

      We may learn slowly, but I think we can learn. At least, I hope we can.

    1. And the loss of something else, too. It took me a few readings to recognize another layer in the poem. Look at the title: “The Extinction of Silence.” It’s really quite masterful — using birds as a metaphor for a disappearing silence: silence which vanishes at the sound of voices, or footsteps, and that “takes wing” at the slightest noise.

      It brought to mind the native communities you’ve been a part of. They not only respect and honor the creatures of the world, they honor silence, too, in a way we’ve nearly forgotten.

      1. Very true. We “Americans” seem to value up front and noisy communication, while our Native American brothers and sisters prefer to quietly absorb nature while taking a “wait and see” attitude. Of course much changes after blending into a broader community.

    1. Honestly? I don’t know. But I do know there are days when disappearing into the bayous doesn’t sound too bad. There are a lot of uncommon birds there — as I’m sure there are in your part of the world. Sometimes, if it’s particularly quiet, you even can hear them sing.

    1. Of course, in some instances that’s probably just as well, and part of a natural process. Spare me the armadillo ancestors the size of VW Beetles, or the velociraptors. On the other hand, it would be good for us to consider whether we want to be part of an unnatural extinction process.We nearly did it with the bison — maybe we can stop ourselves before we do it to the bees.

    1. It’s impossible not to admire the adaptability of the crabs, and it’s equally impossible not to feel a number of things about the people who create the kind of environment they have to live in.

      It’s increasingly becoming a problem down here. Galveston Bay profits by having a high profile and groups dedicated to its health, but general litter still is a problem. Farther down the coast, the amounts of trash left behind by people is horrid. Why it’s impossible to walk six feet and put something in a clearly marked trash barrel is beyond me, but I have a feeling it wouldn’t help if the barrel was within arms’ reach.

    1. It certainly is a bird that Texas and Louisiana share (along with a few other lucky states). I love finding the young ones, but it’s always fun to see those striking adults out and about, looking for a frog or a crawfish. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Becca.

  5. It does remind me of a fawn – coloring and that ability to do that swinging statues game pose forever it seems. What focus when hunting.
    Another lovely image.
    (Not only a concern about disappearing silence /only sounds as produce by nature, but also a real concern of dark sky loss – why do there have to be so many lights everywhere? It’s night. Go indoors with shielded windows or better just go to bed until dawn. We’d all probably be a whole lot better off if we did.)

    1. I know the egrets hang around your neighborhood. Do you see these herons, too. I suspect so: at least, the adults.

      Light pollution is another problem — and not just for us. I’ve read that the clocks of birds and animals are being reset by so much human light. And of course light is a real problem for nesting sea turtles. A friend sent me this article recently, and it was a fascinating read.

      I saw a guy stop on 2094 today to move a really big turtle that was in the middle of the road — right where I stopped to pick one up a few weeks ago. It was a better than usual rescue. He was driving a BMW and was in white shirt and dress slacks — but he stopped, put on the flashers, and took that big boy over to the grass. You never know.

  6. Wonderful image, Linda, thank you for sharing. I read through the comments, and really do not have much anything to add, just that I cry in silence sometimes. We watched Tony Duncan and his whole family perform hoop dances and flute playing this past weekend, and talk about the ant people and the cloud people and the heron people. And I ended up crying the whole performance. Maybe crying the rivers for the heron people with those expressive faces.
    I will have to look up this poetess.

    1. I’m glad you got to see Tony Duncan. I’d enjoy seeing one of the family’s performances; his flute music is wonderful: thrilling and evocative.

      I’d like to hear the heron stories, too. Every culture seems to honor herons in one way or another. Just for fun, I did some browsing around, and bumped into heron-as-totem. I’ve never imagined that I had an animal totem, and don’t feel the need for one, but it was quite interesting to read the description of people for whom the heron functions in that role. Let’s just say I recognized some traits.

      Once upon a time, in very different circumstances, someone told me that tears always are an acceptable response to music. I’d say they fit pretty well with stories, too.

    1. That’s exactly what they do — unless they’re standing still. They do a whole lot of that, too. In fact, they can watch the water longer than I can watch them. I’m not so patient. On the other hand, if dinner depended on my patience, I might do better!

  7. Herons are interesting, there are many around the rice fields at my daughter’s. My favorites to see are the sandhill cranes. Especially when they are dancing. I always take the back roads to her place on the off chance that I will spot some.

    1. I spent some time trying to find sandhills this year, but never got more than a glimpse. I used to know where to find them, but they’re clearly changed their feeding grounds. Some of their formerly favorite fields have been planted in rice this year, so they may be back in the fall. They’re such stately birds — and as distinctive as herons in their calling.

  8. It is a hard thought to think, this “first not seen, not heard.” Loss sneaks up on us but when it finally claims its ground the void is more than can be imagined.

    1. The poem captures that sudden recognition of unobserved loss perfectly, I think. It’s always tempting to believe that what is, will always be. Then, it isn’t: and as you said, the experience of absence can become almost overwhelming.

      Even when the loss is part of natural changes in the environment, it can be disorienting, just as it is when death claims someone dear to us. In the end, I suppose, death and disappearance aren’t so very different.

    1. Thanks, Juliet. As sensitive as you are to the issues underlying the poem, I’m not surprised that you found it appealing. Thanks for stopping by, and for commenting.

  9. We see blue herons a good bit in the slough in the pecan orchard, which happens to be a natural wetland area. I have never heard of these Night Herons. I do a good bit of bird watching while working in the orchard, so I’ll be keeping an eye out!

    1. They really are handsome creatures. And they do make it up to your area. Here’s the EBird sighting map. You can enter your county or maybe even zip code and see if any have been reported. They will hunt during the day as well as the night, so you might well see one if they’re around — particularly an adult. They’re quite distinctive, and willing to stand around in open ditches and such.

    1. Yes, the photo’s mine. I once resolved to note on the blog that photos are mine unless otherwise indicated, and I did that a few times. Then, I stopped, for no good reason. Since I rarely use others’ images any more, I need to remedy that. I thought about putting my name on the actual photo, but that seemed a little pretentious. I’ll figure it out.

      The young birds are quite wonderful. Herons seem especially still and patient, even when not fishing, and the young ones learn very quickly to be quiet — except when they’re still in the nest, hungry, and aware that dinner is coming!

      I haven’t read widely in Stallings, but many of her poems are as enticing as anything written by Mary Oliver or another of my favorites, Pattiann Rogers. Stallings has been described as “inhabiting the gray area between free and blank verse,” but also as a “new formalist.” It’s a congenial combination.

    1. Nature’s often closer at hand than we realize. I suppose their silence is part of what makes spotting a rabbit, a turtle, a heron — even a snake or alligator — so memorable. They can materialize and disappear in a moment: tokens of a world that can’t be commanded by humans.

    1. You’re welcome, Lavinia. I’m not surprised you enjoyed it. There’s something about it that reminds me of your place in the world, and the positive silences that live there.

  10. Well, I hope they never go extinct! That poem carries a strong message in such an unexpected way. As for the heron, I’ve never seen a juvenile – but you say you have a lot of them around, and since you work on boats, I can imagine you’d see a juvenile once in a while – that’s a great photo!
    There used to be Black-crowned Night Herons, one in particular, that would hang around the Staten island ferry – when you consider that this is a ferry with thousands of passengers on a very busy New York City route, it’s amazing. This heron would sit on pilings alongside the slip (on the Staten Island end, not the Manhattan side). I always felt like I was the only person who saw him. Cool birds, the night herons!

    1. The black-crowned are delightful. The adults tend to be more social — or at least more willing to hang around where there are people — as your example clearly proves. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were one of only a very few who saw it — at least of the regular commuters. Around here, tourists tend to be more aware of what surrounds them, especially on our ferries. Of course, part of the reason of taking the ride is to see the dolphins and birds, so they tend to be more attentive: or so I imagine.

      Around here, its the pelicans and cormorants who do the piling-sitting. Well, and the seagulls, but the seagulls are everywhere.

    1. I finally got around to visiting, and enjoyed it very much. There is something compelling about the birds. Even those who don’t engage in serious birding will stop for a look or a listen — they add so much to our lives. Someone asked me which I thought would be harder to accomplish: a truly good photo of a bird, or a poem about a bird. I’m still not sure about that, but a good poem paired with a good photo surely is a rarer bird!

  11. Love this. And I have seen this bird in Toronto. At first I didn’t know what it was, only after I got home and did some Googling did I find out its name. A quiet bird seems to be an oxymoron, but no. And I, for one, love the notion of silence. :). BTW, have you the chance to see the film?

    1. There are birds that are quiet by nature, like the herons, just as there are the chatty ones. There are lots of young grackels around now, and believe me: those youngsters are as loud as they are demanding. It’s fun to watch them follow their parents around, insisting on more and more food.

      I haven’t seen “Silence.” I know it was in Houston, but it never came to any of the theaters in my area (at least, as far as I know). I’m not sure any of my movie-going friends have seen it either — at least, I haven’t heard anyone say anything about it. (Maybe they’re just keeping silent.)

  12. The poem reminds me of a goldfish my husband and I had years ago that was very shy and rarely came anywhere near the surface when people were about – until a relative began to sing and the fish swam to the surface to listen. It seemed enthralled. Later I tried singing to it too – and it came for that as well.

    That heron has the most curious expression in its eye!

    1. I love the thought of luring a goldfish with song. Why not? If there can be horse-whisperers, why not fish-singers? I’m not sure the mullet I see on a daily basis would be as sensitive as your goldfish, but I might give it a try.

      I love the expression in that heron’s eye, too. It was looking out of its clump of concealing reeds toward a pond, and seems to be thinking, “I’m not sure I’m ready to take that on yet — at least, not without Mum.”

    1. Thanks, Bella. It’s always fun to find the young ones tucked away, trying their best to get their parents attention while not attracting the attention of others.

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