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Life as Performance Art

       I have been waking up well before dawn this spring, and it is all my wife’s fault.  No, she is not pulling the blankets over to her side on cool mornings, or sprawling across the bed, shoving me closer to the edge.  Rather, it is a book that she gave me for Christmas, entitled Bird Songs in Love and War.   It was a wonderful gift because ever since I was a youngster birds have fascinated me, and each year I start an annual list of birds spotted, but then forget about keeping it up to date.  Eventually I give up and vow to start again next year.
      For the most part, I am pretty good at recognizing the songs of different birds that like to live in our area.  I can tell the difference between the song of a cardinal and robin, a mourning dove and a house wren, and of course, a small flock of English sparrows that always sound like a bunch of elementary school children as they charge out the doors for their summer holiday. Mockingbirds confuse me, and when I hear the call of a red headed woodpecker, I always think of the cartoon series, “Woody Woodpecker.”   Crows are a cinch, as are the sandhill cranes.
     There is something wonderful about the songs of our birds, especially this time of the year.  From their arrival in early spring until the middle of summer, we get to enjoy them.  Then, after the second brood has hatched and flown the nest, they become much quieter.  The musical season is seemingly over by early August.  In part, it is because they are molting, and until their new feathers grow in, that makes the vulnerable to predators.  Too much singing is likely to bring the unwarranted attention of a cat, just when their ability to fly away is limited. In part, because like impatient travelers, they are in a hurry to fly home at the end of their summer vacation.
     After reading  the book I quickly realized there was a lot more to bird songs than I realized.  For one thing, there is a difference between bird songs and bird calls. For another,  there are some birds,  especially the robins in this part of the country, who are lustily singing away well before dawn.  It almost seems as if they are like the ancient Druids who crawled out of their mud and wattle huts to start their chants and incantations to get the sun to rise each day. Others wait until there is some color on the eastern horizon. Close behind them are the rest of the birds, all singing away for a few minutes before getting down to the serious business of having breakfast.
     We tend to project a lot of our own beliefs on to the animals around us, including birds. We nod in amazement and approval at the carefully woven nest of a Baltimore oriel or the tidy wattle and mud abode of a robin, but wince at the casual collection of sticks used by the English sparrow. We think of blue jays as a bunch of raucous youngsters, making too much noise and annoying people.  Starlings are, as one friend said, a ‘nuisance in search of a parked car.’  And we do it with their songs and calls.
    Most of us grew up thinking birds were singing because they were happy to welcome a new day.  Or at night, saying ‘sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite’ to the setting sun.  But the author of the book and other ornithologists caution us to slow down.  We’re doing it again as we impose our own views on them,  aided and abetted by the old sheepdog of the Lake Country in England, William Wordsworth and his poems about larks ascending into the sky to sing at sunrise.
     Not so much. Each morning most of them are announcing, “All right,  the rest of you listen up.  This is my nest,  my birdhouse,  my perch and my tree. No trespassing.  Go find another place. And don’t get any ideas about fooling around with my lady. She’s mine, so keep your distance.”
      The wrens living in a nesting box near our back door make that clear. I hear them right at dawn, and they sound so happy.  Not so. They are defending their turf and they aren’t merely warning off other wrens.  If I accidently get too close, they’ll come flying at me, dive-bombing my head, to tell me to back off.  Or, if a cat is in the area, they are the first to sound the alarm.
     According to my Christmas gift book, most people are surprised and devastated to learn which bird is the most homicidal. Many assume it is a crow, blue jay, or a shrike.  That’s because we interpret them as ruffians.  It isn’t true.  It is our beloved robin.  We see them scolding and chasing each other like two fighter pilots, or sometimes rolling on the ground as they wrestle. On occasion we might even see them flight straight at each other for a lethal mid-air collision.
     Nature is full of surprises and delights. I revel getting up in time to hear the earliest of the early birds or watch them fly to and from the thistle seed feeder. On a warm day, others will land on the edge of the bird bath, look around to see if there are predators, and dive in the fountain to splash and cool off.  Many times, if other birds have been waiting too long for their turn, they will scold the bather to get a move on so others can enjoy the water.
     Some days I will watch as an errant crow violates the airspace of a starling or blackbird. The smaller one will rise up, fly a bit higher than the crow, and dive at it, chasing it off and warning the bird not to return.  And another day it will be an owl or small hawk that has roosted in a tree, catching the attention of the area crows.  They caw and haw to one another, gathering an airborne squadron who do their best to drive the intruder out of the area.
      We have only a few weeks before this excitement begins to wind down.  If you want to enjoy it, now is the time.

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