Monday, May 17, 2010

Field Notes 3

Showboats, cont.

The second showboat bird is more of a people's bird than the rose-breasted grosbeak is. After all, you don't see a baseball team named the Grosbeaks, do you? (Actually, the Cardinal was once known as the Cardinal Grosbeak, so maybe you do.) Never mind. I'm referring, of course, to the lusty maestro of the elms, the Baltimore—no, Northern—no, Baltimore Oriole.

Color comparisons are subjective, but seeing your first vibrant oriole orange in full sun is right up there with the grosbeak's rose. In a way, it's more of a full drink of color than the sip of the RBG, more tangy though maybe not as sweet. And again, framed with black and white to set it off to brilliant advantage.

The Baltimore oriole does seem to like us. I say that not just because the other day one flew to a low limb about twenty feet from me and proceeded to preen itself most comfortably, fanning wings and tail in orange-white slats, zipping up feathers with its blackbird beak. I say that because of its song. It's made to be whistled back. Always a simple, clear, tinkertoy of notes, two to ten notes long, perhaps even borrowed from human sources (one book reports an oriole in Pittsburgh, in the 1890s, whistling the melody of the day: Ta ra-ra boom de-ay!), over and over. Inviting reps from humans. I know this because once in the Fenway, in Boston, I took one oriole up on it. It whistled. I whistled. It whistled again. I made another attempt. Like this? ..... No, like this ..... So it went, for a good ten minutes, call and response, bird and "bird," until one of us gave up, not sure who bailed first. But I think of that oriole whenever I hear some seesaw of notes in a tree, another invitation, and I'm tempted to engage, like a carnival game where you lose your shirt but you can't help it. It's just so darn whistleable!

A bright Northern Oriole (a.k.a. Baltimore)
flies through a neighborhood whistling his call to more
species than birds. He comes down to a beech
where humans have gathered to learn what he'll teach.

"Am I not handsome?" he whistles quite clearly.
"Old shellfish are yellow," they echo, or nearly.
"I'll make a good mate," he sings to them brightly.
They pipe back, "The eggs of my cat are unsightly."
He seeks to correct them. They try it again:
"The beak of my uncle resembles a hen's."
He moves to a new phrase: "Keep back from my tree!"
The best they can do is, "I'm bird as a free!"

An hour of this and their lips are unpuckered.
They wander away, half-parched and plumb tuckered,
until one remains: a small girl, barely five.
She calls up in English, "I'm glad I'm alive!"
He answers in Oriole, "Hip hip hooray!"
And they trade joyous phrases the rest of the day.

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