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 ~ The Great Prairie Podfluffer

More rare than the Phoenix but as Texan as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Great Prairie Podfluffer appears in late summer or early fall, hidden among flocks of migrating grackles or brown-headed cowbirds. Always well camouflaged, it’s sometimes mistaken for an ordinary plant; you might notice its similarity to a dry and splitting Green Milkweed pod. Still, a closer look reveals its dark eye and sharp beak: both helpful for nabbing insects or the occasional field mouse.

Because of its rarity, Podfluffer poetry is in short supply; unlike the swallow or lark, few sing its praises. Had Emily Dickinson come across the creature, I’m sure she would have captured its spirit in her inimitable way, but only Lewis Carroll has left us a few lines to suggest he might have known the Podfluffer.  Enjoy Mr. Carroll’s “Little Birds” and judge for yourself.

Little Birds are dining
Warily and well,
Hid in mossy cell:
Hid, I say, by waiters
Gorgeous in their gaiters –
I’ve a Tale to tell.
Little Birds are feeding
Justices with jam,
Rich in frizzled ham:
Rich, I say, in oysters
Haunting shady cloisters –
That is what I am.
Little Birds are teaching
Tigresses to smile,
Innocent of guile:
Smile, I say, not smirkle –
Mouth a semicircle,
That’s the proper style!
Little Birds are sleeping
All among the pins,
Where the loser wins:
Where, I say, he sneezes
When and how he pleases –
So the Tale begins.
Little Birds are writing
Interesting books,
To be read by cooks:
Read, I say, not roasted –
Letterpress, when toasted,
Loses its good looks.
Little Birds are playing
Bagpipes on the shore,
Where the tourists snore:
“Thanks!” they cry. “‘Tis thrilling!
Take, oh take this shilling!
Let us have no more!”
Little Birds are bathing
Crocodiles in cream,
Like a happy dream:
Like, but not so lasting –
Crocodiles, when fasting,
Are not all they seem!
Little Birds are choking
Baronets with bun,
Taught to fire a gun:
Taught, I say, to splinter
Salmon in the winter –
Merely for the fun.
Little Birds are hiding
Crimes in carpet-bags,
Blessed by happy stags:
Blessed, I say, though beaten –
Since our friends are eaten
When the memory flags.
Little Birds are tasting
Gratitude and gold,
Pale with sudden cold:
Pale, I say, and wrinkled –
When the bells have tinkled,
And the Tale is told.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Walden on the Wing

Broom in one hand and coffee balanced in the other, I made my way to the dawn-lit patio, intending to sweep up birdseed scattered by my messy eaters.

One quick sweep of the broom caused an even quicker flutter. Startled, I bent to look into the tangled leaves of a Hawaiian schefflera, and found the source of the flutter: a Gray Hairstreak butterfly (Strymon melinus) hardly larger than a penny. Lizards and snails visit the patio frequently, but I’d never encountered a butterfly there, so I backed away, put down the broom, and fetched the camera.

Perhaps instinctively, the creature had chosen the darkest and least accessible corner for its refuge. Fearful that the use of flash would send it flying, I took a few photos to document its presence and came inside. An hour later, the hairstreak still lingered, perfectly still, in the same spot. After two hours, and then three, it occurred to me that it might be newly hatched, and was drying its wings.

By that time, the sun was shedding more light on the schefflera, so I reclaimed the camera and clipped a few leaves from the plant for a better view of the tiny creature. As I clipped, the butterfly never moved, and the photo you see is the result. An hour later, it had flown.

Initially, I had planned to finish my sweeping and coffee drinking before visiting a local nature center for a few hours, but the time I spent watching the hairstreak put an end to that. No matter. As John Burroughs wrote in his essay “The Exhilarations of the Road”:

A man must invest himself near at hand and in common things, and be content with a steady and moderate return, if he would know the blessedness of a cheerful heart and the sweetness of a walk over the round earth.

The presence of the hairstreak, a creature both common and near at hand, seemed worthy of investment, however moderate the return. It also brought to mind Mary Oliver’s affirmation of Burrough’s perspective in her poem “Going to Walden.”

It isn’t very far as highways lie.
I might be back by nightfall, having seen
the rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.
Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.
They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:
How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!
Many have gone, and think me half a fool
To miss a day away in the cool country.
Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,
Going to Walden is not so easy a thing
As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult
Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

 

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.

Watching a Christmas Star

Daystar
Like so many others, I sought out the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in last night’s evening twilight. Less than a degree apart, their shining presence brought to mind a favorite experience from childhood, retold here for a new Christmas season.

Perhaps she noticed my absence. Perhaps she only felt a draft from the partly-opened door and rose to investigate. In either case, drawn onto the porch that cold Christmas night, my grandmother discovered a quilt-wrapped, shivering, and entirely unhappy litle girl huddled on her front steps.

“Good heavens,” she said.”What’s wrong? What are you doing out here?” Surprised by her question, I confessed the truth. “I don’t want to go home.” “Of course you don’t,” she said, lowering herself to sit next to me on the step. “It was a nice Christmas. Did you have fun? Did you like your presents?” Unwilling to meet her gaze, I murmured the complaint voiced by generations of children: “I wish it wasn’t over.”

A front porch in winter is no place for conversation, but my grandmother seemed lost in thought, and reluctant to move. Finally, she said, “But it isn’t over. Not yet. Let’s go in the house and have some cookies.” As she led me through the sea of relatives that had flooded the front room, someone — an aunt or uncle, or perhaps a parent — asked, “What’s going on?” “We’re going to the kitchen,” she said, and that ended the questions. Everyone knew better than to interfere with Grandma when she seemed bent on a mission.

While she brought cookies from the pantry, I filled my glass with milk. We settled in at the table,  and I waited to see which direction the conversation would take. “Did you watch for Santa last night?” she asked. I had. “Did you see him?” I hadn’t, of course, but the heap of presents in the living room provided all the proof I needed to know that he’d stopped by.

“What if I told you there was something to watch for tonight?” I stopped in mid-dunk, milk dripping from the bottom of my cookie. “What?” Busy with her own cookie, Grandma said, “Miss Luksetich says that if you watch in the east every night at midnight until the Feast of The Three Kings, you might see the Star of Bethlehem.”

I’d never known my grandmother to lie, and Christine Luksetich was one of her best friends. It was worth pondering. “Really?” I said. Wisely enough, Grandma sounded a few cautionary notes. “You have to look right at midnight, and not a minute before or after. It could be cloudy, or you could fall asleep. But if you keep looking, you might see it. It’s there.”

Entranced, no longer reluctant to leave Christmas Day behind, I headed to the living room and began picking up my gifts: more than eager to return home, scurry off to my east-facing bedroom, and begin scanning the skies.

I didn’t see the Star of Bethlehem that year. I didn’t see it the next year, for that matter, or the year after that. Given my grandmother’s fondness for Swedish folk tales and her friend Christine’s Croatian heritage, it occurred to me that their reappearing Star of Bethlehem might be a legend akin to tales of animals talking on Christmas Eve, or oxen kneeling in their stalls.

Still, I watched: scrutinizing the skies each year to see if something might appear. And then, it did. One night there were only the usual faint twinkles in the eastern sky above our cherry trees. The next, a brilliant star shone there: pulsating, glimmering — so bright it seemed to light the snow-covered countryside. For as long as I could stay awake, it never moved. The next night, it was gone.

With the deep, pure certainty of childhood, I knew that I’d seen the Star of Bethlehem. I told no one — neither friends, nor parents, nor even my own grandmother — although no one could have convinced me that I didn’t see it. Still, I was reluctant to be ridiculed, or tempted into an argument.

Over time, the memory faded, and my habit of looking eroded. Most years found me otherwise occupied in the days after Christmas — traveling, or visiting, or cleaning up kitchens — and if I remembered at all, I gave the skies no more than a cursory glance.

But one year in Kansas, halfway between Monument Rocks and the Cimarron Grasslands, I stopped to admire some cottonwoods. A brilliant star, created by sunlight shining through leaves, erased the decades. Remembering my vision of the Star of Bethlehem so many years earlier, I thought:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Star follows us, just as surely as the Wise Men followed the Star?

This year, it was the same sun but a different tree which brought that childhood experience to mind, along with the fanciful, centuries-old legend of kneeling oxen and talking animals.

‘Fanciful,’ of course, is our polite way of describing events we imagine to be impossible. Unwilling to appear naive, stupid, or silly, few adults admit to clinging to such legends. Still, barns continue to beckon on Christmas eve, and hills laid bare beneath winter skies shimmer still, awaiting Bethlehem’s star, and those with eyes to see.

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold,
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh, the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
                             “Christmas Poem” ~ Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome.
To read Thomas Hardy’s poem about the legend of the kneeling oxen, please click here.