Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tanager, Scarlet

It's not really a showboat like the others. Not an extrovert like the oriole or a "glorified robin" like the grosbeak. Its song has been famously compared to a robin with a sore throat. A raspy, tuneless singsong that is nature's way of distributing gifts fairly so that you don't get the looks and the voice.

But however un-mellifluous it may be, that sound, carried over an acre or two of treetops, works like a siren song. Distant raspy lilt!: drop what you're doing and proceed with all due speed to the source because if you're lucky, oh what a reward.

When I was a kid, that bird represented one of my earliest incursions into my father's den of expertise. We had a woods behind our house on Nutmeg Lane, and one day I saw, high in the canopy, what I knew to be, from my Alan Cruikshank bird book, a scarlet tanager. I only saw it briefly. It looked totally exotic and out of place. What was it doing in a Connecticut woods? Belonging here, apparently.

My dad doubted my identification. Here, in our backyard? I must have been mistaken. A cardinal, more likely. But then, shortly after, in the tall gray pages of the Sunday New York Times, superseding even Dad as a bastion of knowledge—vindication! An article about scarlet tanagers spreading northward, or eastward, into the city's suburbs. 

I can understand his skepticism, even if I trusted Cruikshank and my own eyes over my dad's. This hot red and black bird, more than most other birds in their breeding plumages, looks like a souvenir from a tropical rainforest, an escaped papagayo. But we drink in that scarlet like vampires because we need it. It's an eye thing. We need so much natural scarlet, so much rose, so much indigo, so much tangerine in our optical diet. 

As for the tanager, what does it get out of it that makes it choose to have its brood in New England? Maybe up in our Puritan and Wampanoag woods of May, far from the toucan and the quetzal and the cock-of-the-rock, it feels more amazing. The Scarlet Pimpernel of Medford, Mass. (We seek him here, we seek him there, we birders seeking him everywhere...) 

Or maybe that voice is the giveaway. A hard, plain Yankee argument in the eastern hardwoods. Its home.

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