Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Whispering Voice of Spring

When the catbirds had not talked to me for over seven days I thought it was safe to cut back the bush that they asked me to leave alone several weeks ago.
It wasn’t.

 The little gray birds have been a small, but vocal, part of our yard’s warm weather avian population for as long as Mars and I have lived at this address – over thirty-eight years.  As has the imperiled and overgrown large green bush that, along with other flora, separates the two halves of the yard at the south end of our property.  Only three times in four decades of my landscaping memory have the feathered residents interfered with my yard maintenance efforts – just now, last month, and a few years previously.  And each vignette played out exactly the same way.
 Normally I try to keep this particular shrub at around my six-foot-plus height. But that preceding year, for whatever reason, I had let it go since spring and the plant had gotten to be about eight feet tall with a new growth that had plenty of time to thicken up.
Mars had given me some new pruning shears with adjustable handles, which (with a twist) telescope to double their normal length, thus allowing me to take on tasks like the one in front of me. Using the longer version of the tool is a little hard on my arms since the center of gravity shifts and I have to operate it most of the time at full arm's length. But I figure that it's pretty good exercise for an area of my body that never had much of a workout until I discovered the joys of destructive gardening.
 I had just started snipping away when I heard the distinctive cat-like "mew" call – or as Oliver Wendell Holmes (Boston-based physician, poet, professor, lecturer, and author) phrased more lyrically:
“I hear the whispering voice of spring,
the thrush's trill, the catbird's cry.”
But unlike previous iterations of the mewling, this sound was not emanating from an invisible source on high but rather from the immediate proximity of the slashing metal blades. And the tone was different - much more threatening. Also there seemed to be more than one speaker - although with the thick leaves I never really saw anyone. I did however hear the flapping of wings.
I stopped immediately and went inside to tell Mars about my accidental discovery. And the bush remained un-pruned.  Until this year that was the only time in over three decades that I came upon the little gray bird’s nesting place. 
 Normally a pair of catbirds shows up in our yard sometime in May; scouts it out for a couple of days; then settles in somewhere out of sight but not out of sound.  I should explain that while we do not live in a forest, there are numerous tightly-packed bushes and small dense trees along our borders.   Several of these are berry producers, among them blueberry bushes, which we coincidentally removed this year after several seasons of minimal output.  And for which we compensated by adding several more bird-centric fruit-bearers to another one of our perennial beds.
All that, plus a 24 x 7 x 52 feeding station that supplies black oily sunflower and thistle seeds makes our part of town a pretty good place for CT avifauna to hang out.  (There are a couple of neighborhood feline predators and an occasional hawk to add to the excitement – but neither of these has, as far as I’ve seen, made any dent in the catbird community.)
Anyway, sometime in mid summer a third and perhaps fourth and fifth young catbird would arrive on the scene, pecking away at our bird food supply and mewing at us from various venues around our yard – fence posts, roof gutters, barbecue grill covers and most often hidden behind the thick greenery like the indigenous Invisible People in the 1985 movie “The Emerald Forest”.
And this year at least one of them has taken to talking to me each evening when I go out back near their woodland hideaway to fill the aforementioned seed feeders.  His vocabulary is not particularly varied.  In general it seems to be the friendly catlike “mew” that earned the bird its name.  But other times there is a series of random noises that the Cornell University Ornithology Lab describes as “whistles, squeaks, gurgles, whines, and nasal tones.”  As for myself I try to limit my responses to an occasional “nice weather we’re having” or “how about those Yankees?”
Then ten days ago, or so, our nightly chats just kind of stopped happening.  Nor did I see the LGBs around anywhere.  So I figured, good chance to finish my pruning job.   However the response that I got from within the under-attack bush the other day was familiar – decidedly anti-conversational and actually downright hostile. 
So that particular shrub will once again remain twenty percent untrimmed for the duration.  The problem will be figuring out when exactly that length of time ends.  I’m certainly not expecting the catbirds to tell me.


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