Monday, July 07, 2008

Catch And Release

We caught our first two birds of the season. There were both Gray Catbirds, a.k.a. Dumetella carolinensis, a.k.a. Monqueur chat (French), a.k.a. Mimido gris (Spanish). They were captured in the usual way - inside the black, plastic netting that we place around our blueberry bushes in order to keep them, and others but mostly them, out.

I knew it before I saw it. As soon as I opened up the garage to bring out my lawn mower I could hear the SOSs - a rapid-fire series of frenzied, loud, shrill, catlike screams coming from various directions but centered on the copse of blueberry bushes in the southeast corner of our yard. It sounded like one of Cher's Italian family gatherings from the movie "Moonstruck".

I rushed to the scene of the crying, fighting my way through the wall of sound that surrounded the area. There were two Dumetellae flying frantically back and forth inside the caging that surrounded our largest bush. Each bird was screeching non-stop. There also seemed to be, judging by the sound, an audience of two or three more - moving just as frequently but more successfully than the pair of captives. And screaming just as often. The advice from their peers, however, did not seem to be helping the situation.

I walked to one side of the makeshift cage and rolled back the sheet of mesh that covered that end. One of the prisoners immediately flew out the open end. The cacophony diminished somewhat.

The remaining catbird, which up until that point had been flying back and forth, to and from the now unclosed enclosure wall, altered its pattern to exclude that end of the cage and instead ping-ponged his body in a triangle composed of the three remaining, locked-down barriers. A couple of times he landed directly on the netting and seemed momentarily to be caught therein. Then, at the point I was thinking about which gloves to put on in order to handle him, he freed himself and continued his tripartite excursion within the blueberry cage.

I decided to go cut the grass and check back on my prisoner in thirty minutes or so. The noise of the internal combustion engine drowned out the demonstrative fretting, but one half hour later, when I shut it down, I did not hear any catcalls coming from the back yard. I wandered back, affirmed that all was indeed well, and returned the flap of plastic to its protective position.

As soon as I had put back the concrete pavers that held the mesh snug to the ground I heard two of the catbirds shouting. They bobbed belligerently on an adjacent pine tree branch looking me in the eye and scolding me. I told them it was their own damn fault and that if they just stayed away from the blueberries that they wouldn't have any problems at all. They appeared not to understand a word I was saying.

The Monqueur chats have lived on our property for at least as many years as we have. The blueberry bushes, although not necessarily the same ones, almost as long. And other breeds of birds - some of them with similar longevity and all of them much quieter - have likewise taken their shots at blueberry picking

In the beginning the birds were kept from the berries by layers of tobacco netting that were wound around the bushes like mummy-wrap. Other than the occasional piece of fruit that popped out through a torn piece of white fabric, the berries were pretty much immune to the assaults of the outside fauna.

Pretty much - but not completely. Even then, with the bushes protected by multiple layers of thick cotton, the catbirds would somehow find their way into the fruit-laden inner sanctum. And need to be let go.

As I think about it, this catbird catch-and-release ritual only seems to happen once a year. It is preceded by several weeks of Mars and me wondering if the catbirds are coming back - and then one or two casual sightings of the medium-sized, gray songbird.

And it is immediately followed by a spring-and-summer long series of multiple-times-per-day public appearances by the feathered chat family in our yard - each one comprised of bravado flights and landings of astonishing closeness, and cacophonous serenades of verbal abuse.

Which means of course that the whole "help I'm trapped in the net" routine is not an instance of hunger-driven stupidity but instead a carefully orchestrated a rite of passage - followed by an apparently never-ending celebration of that event.

And apparently every year, including this one, I have successfully passed it. Which is why, of course, the catbirds will be back next spring. And why, for the rest of the summer, they will talk to me like I am a member of the family - everyone all at once, loudly and contentiously.

I'm cool with that. I am more than happy to do my part to keep the natural order of things going. Even if it means going to bed on several nights with an endlessly repeating chorus of whiney "mews" reverberating in my head.

Eh! I am part Italian. I mean it should feel like home to me. YouknowhatImean.

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