The Poets’ Birds ~ Flocks

A true murmuration — the mysteriously coordinated flight of thousands of starlings or other birds — is a wonder to behold. On the other hand, the sights and sounds of smaller migrating flocks stir the soul equally, inviting us to stop, and marvel.

Despite the winding down of our autumn migration season, birds continue to arrive: white ibis threading through clouds; unseen geese or cranes calling to their kind; a sudden upwelling of grackles; kettles of hawks rising into invisibility.

On the day after Christmas, newly arrived sandhill cranes browsed the prairies, while flocks of red-winged blackbirds mixed in apparent comfort with the snow geese feeding in harvested rice fields.

Snow Geese ~ Anser caerulescens

Elsewhere, the constant rising and falling of anonymous dark birds brought to mind a poem published by John Updike in the October 27, 1962 issue of the New Yorker: a reflection on a remarkable phenomenon titled “The Great Scarf of Birds.”

Playing golf on Cape Ann in October
I saw something to remember.
Ripe apples were caught like red fish in the nets
of their branches. The maples
were colored like apples,
part orange and red, part green.
The elms, already transparent trees,
seemed swaying vases full of sky. The sky
was dramatic with great straggling V’s
of geese streaming south, mare’s-tails above them.
Their trumpeting made us look up and around.
The course sloped into salt marshes,
and this seemed to cause the abundance of birds.

As if out of the Bible
or science fiction,
a cloud appeared, a cloud of dots
like iron filings which a magnet
underneath the paper undulates.
It dartingly darkened in spots,
paled, pulsed compressed, distended, yet
held an identity firm: a flock
of starlings, as much one thing as a rock.
One will moved above the trees
the liquid and hesitant drift.
Come nearer, it became less marvellous,
more legible, and merely huge.

“I never saw so many birds!” my friend exclaimed.
We returned our eyes to the game.
Later, as Lot’s wife must have done,
in a pause of walking, not thinking
of calling down a consequence,
I lazily looked around.
The rise of the fairway above us was tinted,
so evenly tinted I might not have noticed
but that at the rim of the delicate shadow
the starlings were thicker and outlined the flock
as an inkstain in drying pronounces its edges.
The gradual rise of green was vastly covered;
I had thought nothing in nature could be so broad
but grass.

And as
I watched, one bird,
prompted by accident or will to lead,
ceased resting; and, lifting in a casual billow,
the flock ascended as a lady’s scarf,
transparent, of gray, might be twitched
by one corner, drawn upward and then,
decided against, negligently tossed toward a chair:
the southward cloud withdrew into the air.

Long had it been since my heart
had been lifted as it was by the lifting of that great
scarf.

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ Great-Tailed Grackle

Great-Tailed Grackle ~ Quiscalus mexicanus

Boat-tailed, Common, and Great-Tailed Grackles appear across Texas, their populations ebbing and flowing as the seasons change. Chattering among themselves, providing amusement to humans during mating competitions, and generally showing off to one another, they’re exceedingly social birds. 

In fall and winter, enormous flocks of Great-Tailed Grackles gather in ‘roost trees’ that sometimes contain thousands of birds; their morning flights show up on radar as expanding ‘doughnuts’ called roost rings.

Other birds, especially Purple Martins, often create the same effect. In Houston, there are locations where the various birds’ morning routines are so well known that people click on the radar just to watch and record. (For a beautiful animated .gif of a Houston roost ring, click here.)

Great-tailed Grackles don’t limit themselves to trees, of course. They’ll also fill electrical lines in the early evening or, in the case of my neighborhood, take over our local HEB grocery store. When the birds move in, there’s nothing to be done but laugh. They line the store’s rooftop and perch atop cart returns, but they also wander under and over cars, sit on SUV luggage racks, ride on grocery carts being pushed by bemused shoppers, and search through the outside garden displays for the occasional insect.

Poet Susan Elizabeth Howe has perfectly described their behavior and captured something of their mysterious appeal in her poem titled, “What Is a Grackle?” I don’t think she visited my supermarket while writing it, but she certainly could have.

A comfort common to Southwest desert
parking lots, a familiar, a messenger,
an overlooked angel oiled by asphalt,
consolation of the casino, supermarket
spiritual guide picking at a free-today
hot dog, a dropped grape or lentil,
its purple-green head iridescent,
its long keel of a tail.
Black birds but not blackbirds
with their showy epaulettes blood-red
as a war field. Grackles glint
like lacquered ebony, the females brunhildas,
if by brunhilda you mean “brown-headed,”
not the German “ready for battle.” Blind
to centuries of borders, of battles, they waddle
stiff-legged at your feet, a janitorial sweep
to their tails, checking cart tires and light poles
for moths, beetles, singing their seven songs —
slides, whistles, wheezes, catcalls, chirps,
murmurs, clucks — to console you
for your losses: stolen cars, mortgage
payments spun to mist at a roulette table,
the beloved who breathed fire and scorched
your wedding clothes. Folly, wreckage,
they mutter, down among the packs
of backerboard and spackle. We’ve fallen
from Mayan temples. In a past life
we prophesied. In a past life we were gods.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ Dickcissel

Male Dickcissel ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

A decade ago, historian, film buff, naturalist, and Erath County rancher Jack Matthews introduced me to the Dickcissel (Spiza americana): a bird he’d found returning to his Flying Hat Ranch after years of management practices that included minimal grazing and reseeding with native grasses.

Dickcissels require grassland habitats, but they’re rarely picky about the land’s composition. In summer, they appear in native prairies and restored grasslands, but they also nest in lightly grazed pastures, hayfields, and fallow agricultural fields. Occasionally, they can be spotted along fencerows and roadsides.

Still, it wasn’t until last summer that I came across the bird. Too far away for a photo, it attracted my attention by its song. At the very top of a dead tree along the Brazoria refuge auto route, the song was musical — and loud. At the time I laughed, thinking that any female within a miles-wide radius might have heard that song. 

It wasn’t until this year that I finally found another Dickcissel: a male in breeding colors attracting attention to himself by his song. Perched atop another small dead tree — this one next to the windmill where earlier this year I’d found a Loggerhead Shrike — he was within camera range, and determined to stay put for the sake of attracting a potential mate.

When I returned a week later, he still was there, singing his heart out from the same topmost branch. After finding him perched and singing a third time, I felt a bit sorry for him, but the next time I passed by the windmill he was gone; the flowers were blooming even more profusely, but the time of singing had ended, and the voice of the Dickcissel no longer was heard in the land.

Apart from the pleasure of finally meeting the bird, the Dickcissel brought to mind Marjorie Saiser’s poem “The Nobody Bird.” It’s a fine tribute to Dickcissels, and a reminder that other ‘nobodies’ existing in the world also have their songs.

 

           I’m nobody! Who are you?
               ~ Emily Dickinson
The woman leading the bird walk
is excited because she thinks
for a minute the bird
is one she doesn’t have
on her life list,
and then she says,”Oh, it’s
just a dickcissel.”
I raise my binoculars
to bring the black throat patch
and dark eye
into the center of a circle.
I see how the dickcissel
clings to a stem
when he sings, how
he tilts his head back,
opens his throat.
The group follows
the leader to higher ground.
The wind comes up; white blossoms
of the elderberry dip and
right themselves in a rocking motion
again and again. An oriole
flies into the cottonwood,
the gray catbird into
the tossing ripening sumac.
The nobody bird
holds on:
holds on and sings.
 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds ~ The Warblers

I’ll confess that I giggled a bit when friend Tina of My Gardener Says first mentioned the presence of ‘butter butts’ in her yard. It seemed such an improbable name, until I learned that the more polite version is ‘Yellow-rumped,’ and that both names refer to a little patch of yellow on the nether end of the warbler Setophaga coronata.

Wintertime warblers are easy to find here, especially in places like Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve, where plentiful, berry-filled wax myrtles draw them in. Able to digest the wax in berries, the warblers often supplement their insect-heavy diet with berries of juniper, wax myrtle and poison ivy.

In fall and winter, they also frequent more open woods and shrubby areas like the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, where the flitty little creature shown above paused long enough in its foraging for me to capture its image.

Wax myrtle berries and budding leaves

Two subspecies of the Yellow-rumped Warbler exist: the Myrtle Warbler, found primarily in the eastern United States and Canada, and the Audubon’s Warbler, a bird of western states. The Audubon’s throat is yellow, while the Myrtle’s is white, so I seem to have found a Myrtle Warbler.

Poet Kevin Cole, a resident of South Dakota, may see more Audubon’s Warblers: reason enough to celebrate that bird in his poem of the same name. Despite slight differences in the birds, the poem seems applicable to both.

The Audubon warblers keep the time of their coming,
Arriving on stillness of a storm,
Their breast and backs as dark as low bruised banks of cloud,
Rumps and throats as yellow as blooms of buckwheat.
They throng this evening in the newly-leaved,
Tender-tipped canopies nervously weaving
Through the catkins like frantic prophets
Bearing some divine prophecy of the coming spring.
I wait, hoping for nothing too grave:
News of ruinous lands, of cutting and swarming locusts,
Of withering vines and empty granaries,
Of fasting, weeping, and rending of garments.
No, I wait for lighter fare:
Perhaps a promise that the green heron will nest
On the west end of the slough and that the ironweed
And wood lily will once again together bloom.
This would be an ample prophecy for another year—
This, and a promise to keep the time of their coming.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Poet Kevin Cole earned his BA and MA in literature from Texas A&M University, and a PhD in literature from Baylor University. He currently teaches English at the University of Sioux Falls.

The Poets’ Birds: Red-Winged Blackbird

 

Like the thrilling call of a returning osprey, the song of the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) announces an undeniable turn of season. Hear the song, and it’s not difficult to find the bird: defending territory or seeking a mate by displaying his brilliant red shoulder patches atop any convenient cornstalk, cattail, or branch.

The song, once heard, lingers in memory: evocative, freighted with unexpected meaning. For Welsh poet R.S.Thomas, a song similar in so many ways to the landscape of Wales — a little rough, a bit dark — gave rise to a simple and yet enjoyable poem.

Sometimes compared to the American poet Robert Frost, Thomas is less philosophical and less sanguine about the realities of rural life. Still, there’s little question that he absorbed those realities and transformed them in his own way, much as he imagines the blackbird’s song as a particularly pleasing alchemy.

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes’
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.
You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.
A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history’s overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.
                                          “A Blackbird, Singing”  ~  R.S. Thomas

 

Comments always are welcome.
Click here for more information on poet R.S. Thomas.