The Poet’s Birds: The Perchers

Scissor-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus) perched along a Galveston West End bayou

While herons and robins, egrets and larks receive multitudes of mentions in poetry — if not complete poems written in their honor — other birds seem to be ignored. Walter de la Mare wrote about the spotted flycatcher, and Nissim Ezekiel memorialized an unfortunate paradise flycatcher, but the scissor-tailed flycatcher, sometimes known as the Texas bird of paradise, has no well-known poem to call its own.

On the other hand, one typical behavior of our flycatcher — the tendency to perch on power lines or barbed wire fences while scanning for prey — has been written about. In what may be her best-known poem, Emily Dickinson takes the perching bird as her controlling metaphor, and expands on it delightfully.

 

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
                                                        ~ Emily Dickinson

 

Comments always are welcome. For more information about the scissor-tailed flycatcher (which happens to be the state bird of Oklahoma), please click here.

 

The Poets’ Birds: Robins

Proust had his madeleines. I have my robins.

The murmuring of robins evokes for me a quieter, more gracious world: childhood summers filled with the soft, shallow breathing of curtains at the window; faint scents of spirea and lilac; quiet, melodic wisps of song as parents encourage their nestlings toward sleep.

Baby robins wait for worms in Mena, Arkansas

Robins migrating through Texas will call to one another from the treetops, or create a tell-tale rustling of leaves as they search out insects and fruit in wooded areas, but coastal dwellers rarely hear this thrush’s song.

Last week, after sighting a first robin in Muskogee, Oklahoma, I luxuriated in their calls and songs as I traveled through Missouri and Arkansas. Occasionally, amused but sympathetic, I moved away so that parents could feed their babies.

The babies’ parent with a worm, nicely turned

The nature of robins — their cheerfulness, their industry, their almost self-effacing demeanor — helps to make them delightful icons of midwestern life. The trill of the corn-clinging blackbird might be more obvious; the rush of air past a nighthawk’s wings more dramatic; but the dependable robins are the ones whose song begins and ends the day.

Mary Oliver, born in Maple Heights, Ohio and a resident of Camden, Maine as a teenager, certainly heard the robin’s song throughout her formative years. But she more than heard it; she experienced, internalized, and reshaped the song, returning it to us here in soft, solemn, and perfect words that honor the well-loved bird.

 

It was spring
and I finally heard him
among the first leaves––
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness––
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree––
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
stopped
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing––
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfect blue sky–––all of them
were singing.
And, of course, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
For more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then––open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.
                           “Such Singing in the Wild Branches” ~ Mary Oliver

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Poets’ Birds: Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird  (Mimus polyglottos) on Galveston Island

My mother noticed the sound first, drawing my attention to it with a question. “How do you suppose a duck got up on the roof?”

Surprised, I looked around. “Duck? Where do you see a duck?”  “I don’t see a duck,” she said. “I hear a duck.” Listening, I realized she was right. The duck’s quacking, loud and insistent, seemed to be coming from above — if not from the roof, then from one of the overhanging trees.

Of course ducks fly, but we lived among mallards, and I’d never seen one perch higher than ground-level. Intrigued, I followed the sound. Caught up in a racket of its own making, the bird never moved, making it easy to spot. “Look at this,” I said. “Someone’s been hanging out around the water.”

It was a mockingbird on a corner of the roof, engaged in a pitch-perfect imitation of our local mallards. Rather than changing its song from time to time, as mockingbirds do, it simply quacked on, perhaps so delighted with its new ability it couldn’t bring itself to stop.

 
Eventually our amusement faded, but in the coming weeks and months I found myself listening to mockingbirds more closely, picking out snippets of other birds’ calls and songs from their repertoire.

Then, three years ago, a particularly enthusiastic singer moved into my neighborhood. He sang at dawn, and he sang at sunset; he sang at noon and, rather remarkably, he sang at midnight. I thought his night-singing an anomaly until I read this, in the Audubon Field Guide:


 This bird’s famous song, with its varied repetitions and artful imitations, is heard all day during nesting season (and often all night as well).

There’s no way to prove that the same bird has been singing outside my window for three years, but it can’t be denied that he always chooses the same palm tree, and no matter how much singing he’s done, he always begins again between 3 and 4 a.m.

Because of the way the buildings are placed, they seem to amplify his sound, increasing the volume to such a degree that even closed windows are no defense.

After recently being sung awake three nights in a row with no practical way to silence the bird — or any real desire to do so — I decided to add the mockingbird to my series of poets’ birds. This time, I wrote the poem, smiling all the while.

Pleased
to trill
in darkness,
mocking heron
and mallard alike,
the impudent singer
stretches and preens for a still
unseen mate: improvised warbles,
chirrups, and peeps enticing the world
to his sweet-feathered, palm-hidden presence.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.

The Poets’ Birds: Vultures

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

There’s nothing unusual about seeing vultures in Texas, but a pair of turkey vultures taking the sun on a gently disintegrating windmill seemed worth the stop.

By the time I’d stepped out of the car, one of the birds already was giving me the side-eye. The reason for his attention was obvious; if I were going to expire on the side of the road, he didn’t want to miss an easy meal.

His cautious but coolly calculating expression amused me immensely. There on the spot, I composed a bit of verse for him:

The vulture high atop his tree
will look and look  – what does he see?
Of course he’d like to eat for free;
I hope he doesn’t relish me!

Occasionally a website or tabloid will try to pull in readers with an attack-vulture story, but vultures aren’t designed to attack human beings. Several species, including the turkey vulture, will eat small, live prey from time to time, but they’ve evolved to feed primarily on carrion, and help to keep the environment clean by ridding it of dead animals. 

Still, their habits elicit a certain revulsion, and occasionally an almost superstitious reaction. “Don’t stop walking,” an old Texas rancher once said to me. “You don’t want to tempt them.”

 

In a poem he titled “Vulture,” Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962) imagines what it would be like to stop walking, and tempt such a bird.

Jeffers promoted a philosophy he called “inhumanism” — a view of things in which nature “not only serves as a backdrop for verse,  but animals and natural objects frequently are compared to man, with man shown to be the inferior.” It’s a perspective that influenced other California poets, such as Gary Snyder, and although the “merging with nature” that Jeffers imagines here is less sentimental and far more graphic than that portrayed in many poems, it certainly is memorable. I suspect my vultures would like it.

 

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling
high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit
narrowing.
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-
feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward, staring. I said, ‘My dear bird, we are wasting time
here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.’ But how
beautiful
he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the
sea-light
over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak
and
become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes–
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life
after death.

 

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Poets Birds: Crested Caracara

Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) taking the sun at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Despite neither appearing nor behaving precisely like a falcon, the crested caracara is considered a member of the falcon family. Resident in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, its range extends southward through Mexico into tropical areas of Central and South America. Its name, Caracara, may be an anglicization of the Guarani Indian traro-traro: an imitation of the unusual rattling sound the bird makes when agitated.

Often referred to as a Mexican eagle, the caracara is thought to be the bird originally depicted on the national emblem and flag of Mexico before being replaced by the golden eagle.
Continue reading

The Poets’ Birds: Osprey

“Osprey” ~ John James Audubon

 

Oh, large, brown, thickly feathered creature
with a distinctive white head,
you, perched on the top branch
of a tree near the lake shore,
as soon as I guide this boat back to the dock
and walk up the grassy path to the house,
before I unzip my windbreaker
and lift the binoculars from around my neck,
before I wash the gasoline from my hands,
before I tell anyone I’m back,
and before I hang the ignition key on its nail,
or pour myself a drink—
I’m thinking a vodka soda with lemon—
I will look you up in my
illustrated guide to North American birds
and I promise I will learn what you are called.
                                                                   “Osprey” ~ Billy Collins

 

Comments are welcome. For more information on Collins, a former United States Poet Laureate, please click here.

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.