My son and I sat on a ledge above a tiny alpine lake, watching the sky go maudlin and congratulating ourselves on the wisdom of carrying such a good pint of wine to such an altitude. There was incredible silence, except for the murmur of an occasional transcontinental flight far overhead and, in the distance, a reiterative bird chirp.
“What’s that bird?” he asked.
“The little gray bird, what else?” I said.
In all high Rocky Mountain meadows, we see little gray birds. Or maybe it is the same bird, over and over. The little gray bird perches on a twig just distant enough that we can see it is a bird. As soon as we approach to the point of being able to tell anything about it, perhaps that it is actually a little brown bird, it flies off to another twig just as far away as before.
We can’t remember ever having heard a little gray bird sing, so my theory was as good as any. Yet, sipping and listening, I perceived something familiar. As the era of print has given way to other technologies, I have sluggishly followed. Where once I consulted the familiar Big Blue Bird Book, now I do my birding with a Compact Collection of Costly Cassettes. They play bird calls analyzed for the tone-deaf, so they are ideal for me.
I knew I had heard this birdcall. Chick CHEEP cheer! There was a certain syncopation to it. “Wait!” I cried. “It’s the bird that says, `Quick, three beers!’’
This happened before the advent of Merlin, the app which will listen to bird calls and identify them for you. Which I don’t think is fair somehow, but it does obviate what I had to do next.
My son refused to accept Quick Three Beers as legitimate taxonomy. After we got home I had to spend an entire afternoon fast-forwarding the tape until I came to the bibulous olive-sided flycatcher. We have never gotten close enough to the little gray bird to see whether he has a beerbelly and wears a little gimme hat, so most likely I’ll never know whether the olive-sided flycatcher and the little gray bird are one and the same.
For decades I’ve thought I’d put off bird-watching ( the In-Group says “birding”) to my old age, because I’d so much rather hike. Contrary to popular belief, hiking (covering ground) and birding (standing and looking — and looking — and looking) are not compatible. Oh, it’s nice to know the common species to occupy one’s idle hours in campsites. It’s lovely to know the song sparrow and the thrushes when they sweeten the air I’ve trudged through. But stopping to whip out binoculars and match up song with species is something I’ve had little patience for.
For day-in, day-out frustration, birding as an avocation is on a par with playing the lottery, only the scenery is better. You’ll notice the cognoscenti never say “birdwatching.” There’s a reason for that. Birds are quite cranky about being watched, and they’re danged if they’ll let you do it if they can help it.
When we birders hear a chirp or see a twig bounce, we whip out our field glasses or our 30-power scopes. “Got it!” we chorus. Except it has its back to us, or is mostly behind a leaf, or scurries to the far side of the tree trunk, or wears juvenile or non-breeding or female plumage, which so far as I can see is identical for all species.
I’ve retired from that kind of birdwatching. If a bird cares to come perch on the rail of the deck where I am reading, I will look him up.
Listening to bird calls is different. A few sessions with my cassettes, and I can lie immobile in the sun, hat over my eyes, and muse, “House finch. Goldfinch. Robin. Wood thrush. Goldfinch. Goldfinch. Goldfinch.” Before I got these tapes, I thought goldfinches were rare. That’s because, when they don’t feel like being gold, they are — let’s face it — little gray birds.
Thanks to my costly cassettes, I now stroll through the woods greeting my pals the red-eyed vireo, the yellow-rump warbler, the black-throated blue, nuthatches both red-breasted and white and four species of woodpeckers.
For those of us who are not musicians, a song has to have lyrics or we forget it. That’s what the man on the bird tapes does: puts the words to a lot of bird songs. Thing is, he and I really disagree on what birds say. He’ll say, “Listen to the pygmy nuthatch’s `thweep, thweep,'” and he’ll play a call that, no question, goes “Snit! Snit!”
It isn’t just me. He admits that New Englanders believe the white-throated sparrow says, “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” whereas north of the border birders swear the same bird sings, “O sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.”
Take the robin. Everybody knows what he looks like, but what does he say? See? You don’t know. In my opinion the robin is like a television news anchor: talks endlessly and never says anything you can remember. My mother-in-law insists the robin says, Susie, Mary, I love you. The bird-tape man thinks the song may be rendered as cheerup, cheerilee, cheerup. You see the problem.
Years ago cardinals used to warble, “Cheerilee, cheerilee, sweet sweet sweet sweet.” Now they’ve become sports fans: they chant “Jeer, jeer, quit quit quit quit.”
Lots of people believe crows call, “Caw, caw.” It takes an alert bird-listener like me to discern that they really scoff, “Haw! Haw! Haw!” as they leave us in their dust. Or that the hip Swainson’s warbler, my kind of bird, shouts, “Hey hey hey, what’s witchoo?”
The bird man doesn’t notice any of this. He hasn’t caught on to the cynicism of the Acadian flycatcher, who blatantly shrugs, “Big deal.” He thinks sparrows emit random chirps and twitters. Unh-unh. sparrows are shoppers; they opine, “Chic outfit, chic, chic,” or else “Cheap goods, cheap,” and they all talk at once. The tape guy is gulled by the saccharine reputation (sweet, sweet, little more sweet) of the yellow warbler, a shifty fellow who actually mutters: “Cheat, cheat, don’t you dare cheat.”
House finches and purple finches, the tape declares, emit a lengthy, burbling warble. Hogwash. The purple finch makes excuses. He blurts out, “I wanted to help you but I was afraid of getting mugged right in the stweet.” His cousin the house finch is quite rude: “I meant to pay you back but I can’t make ends meet, and okay, same to you, you bleeeeep.” He does not actually say “bleep” or anything that “bleep” usually stands for. He gives you the raspberry. This is what we birders call a diagnostic handle. That means, if you get a Bronx cheer, you know for certain it’s your local house finch.
As time goes on I’m beginning to think the olive-sided flycatcher isn’t ordering beer but organizing a fraternity party: he doesn’t say, “Quick, three beers,” but rather, “Quick, free beer!”
Lately I’ve been able to grasp the diagnostic handles of most of the birds in my yard, except one. This bird persists in singing “Tweet!”
That’s it. Tweet. No diagnostic handles. No whistles, trills or twitters. Just plain Tweet.
I guess this is a monolingual species who speaks nothing but Bird. His lingo is so generic even Merlin can’t identify him. The other day I got a glimpse of him, though. He’s little. He’s gray. When I tried to get closer so I could tell a little bit more about him, he flew off to another branch just as far away as before.
Once a journalist chasing facts for The Boston Globe, Marte Carlock finds it’s more fun to make things up. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in forty-plus journals and quarterly publications. She’s author of A Guide to Public Art in Greater Boston; she sometimes writes for Sculpture and Landscape Architecture magazines and the Internet Review of Books. She has recently published a collection of poetry, How It Will Be from Now on Out.