The Poets’ Birds: Sparrows

Savannah sparrow  (Passerculus sandwichensis) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Botanists and wildflower enthusiasts have their DYCs — the difficult-to-identify sunflowers, sneezeweeds, tickseeds, ragworts, and rudbeckias collectively and humorously known as ‘darned yellow composites.’ In the same way, more than a few birders refer, somewhat ruefully, to LBBs: the ‘little brown birds’ that can be equally difficult to identify.

American sparrows certainly qualify as LBBs. This lovely savannah sparrow at least has a bit of yellow above its eye to help those interested in knowing its name. But most people aren’t aware of or interested in such distinctions, and so the sparrows — brown, ordinary, and easily overlooked — live out their lives in relative obscurity while the cardinals, hummingbirds, and orioles of the world bask in our regard.

One person who found sparrows worthy of attention was Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), one of the first African-American poets to gain national recognition.  Befriended and encouraged by such luminaries as James Whitcomb Riley and Frederick Douglass, he self-published a volume of poems titled Oak and Ivy in 1893. By 1895, his poems were appearing in such major publications as The New York Times, and in 1897 he embarked on a six-month reading tour of England.

Today, Dunbar’s influence continues. A line from the third stanza of his poem “Sympathy” provided the title for Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but caged birds weren’t his only concern. In “The Sparrow,” he addresses issues even more relevant today: species loss, human insensitivity to the natural world, and our rejection of the gifts life offers to us.

A little bird, with plumage brown,
Beside my window flutters down,
A moment chirps its little strain,
Then taps upon my window-pane
And chirps again, and hops along,
To call my notice to its song;
But I work on, nor heed its lay
‘Til, in neglect, it flies away.
So birds of peace and hope and love
Come fluttering earthward from above
To settle on life’s window-sills
And ease our load of earthly ills;
But we, in traffic’s rush and din,
Too deep engaged to let them in,
With deadened heart and sense plod on,
Nor know our loss till they are gone.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on Paul Laurence Dunbar’s life, please click here.

 

The Poets’ Birds: Cormorants

Double-crested cormorant  (Phalacrocorax auritus)

Given their propensity to perch atop pilings or promontories while drying their outstretched wings, cormorants too often are regarded as little more than featureless silhouettes.

In truth, both their appearance and their behaviors are complex and interesting. Fishermen may despise them for their ability to out-fish humans, and tourists often ridicule them for their apparent ungainliness, but at least one poet found himself inspired by the remarkable bird.

The birds don’t alter space.
They reveal it. The sky
never fills with any
leftover flying. They leave
nothing to trace. It is our own
astonishment that collects
in chill air. Be glad.
They enter their due
moment never begging,
and enter ours
without parting day. See
how three birds in a winter tree
make the tree barer.
Two fly away, and new rooms
open in December.
Give up what you guessed
about a whirring heart, the little
beaks and claws, their constant hunger.
We’re the nervous ones.
If even one of our violent number
could be gentle
long enough that one of them
found it safe inside
our finally untroubled and untroubling gaze,
who wouldn’t hear
what singing completes us?
                                  “Praise Them” ~ Li-Young Lee

 

Comments always are welcome.
Visit The Poetry Foundation for more information on poet Li-Young Lee.
For more images of this accomodating cormorant found at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, see my latest post on Lagniappe.
 

The Poets’ Birds: Blackbirds

Meet Isoceles, the grackle with the triangular perch

 

Strictly speaking, this handsome bird is a grackle rather than a blackbird: specifically, a boat-tailed grackle (Quiscalus major). Often seen along the Gulf coast, it can be distinguished from the common grackle by its dark eyes; common grackles’ eyes tend to be a bright yellowish-gold.

Ogden Nash once wrote a humorous if not entirely complimentary little ditty for the grackle, but the stately demeanor of this bird seemed to demand something more. Wallace Stevens was able to describe “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and these four ways especially appeal to me:

 

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.   
II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.   
III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.   
V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.   

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Poets’ Birds: The Hidden Ones

Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura)

Solitary, quiet, the dove lingers: perhaps one of the pair that tended their nest in a nearby palm, or perhaps even their youngster, satisfied with the neighborhood and unwilling to leave.

Mornings, it comes for water. Evenings, as pigeons roost in a flurry of wings and the sun lowers toward the horizon, it reappears on my railing, content to bask in the evening’s glow until darkness compels it home. Continue reading

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.