Every day, just outside my studio window, sits a mockingbird. He claimed the forsythia bush last fall when he was a young lad and I’ve listened to him work on his repertoire for many months, from September through November and starting again in February.
Mockingbirds, as you may know, are mimics, singing phrases of other bird songs in a loop that sounds like a medley of neighborhood birdsong. They will repeat a phrase up to six times before moving on to the next and so on. No mockingbird has the same song as any other and they can add to it any time they want. There’s a mockingbird down by the ferry docks that does a darn good imitation of the ferry backup horn blasts.
This one has the calls of the blue jays around us, including the fake hawk call. He sings several of the Carolina wren calls, cardinal serenades, chickadee and titmouse calls and the songs of song sparrows and robins. He also does a fair impression of a herring gull, as they often fly overhead, and his osprey cry is so spot on I had to remind myself ospreys are not here yet in February when he started up again this year.
This mockingbird stops only to eat or chase off a would-be competitor. He is robust and alert, a handsome and healthy young bird and he wants a mate. Our neighborhood seems a good one for mockingbirds so I’m sure he’ll find a winsome and willing mate when the time comes.
In the meantime, I’m also hearing the robins singing. One has claimed a well-used spot in the backyard and sings from just above it early each morning. There’s something about a robin song that is at once so rich and so whimsical that it takes me straight back to childhood. One of my earliest memories is one of lying beneath an apple tree full of blossoms, watching and listening to a robin sing in the branches high above me. It was a warm spring day, my mother was nearby with my new baby sister and I was free to run or swing or simply lie in the warm, soft grass and let spring open up all around me. It was magical and there are days a robin’s song takes me right back to that sweet time of innocence and abandon.
I think of that peaceful, happy moment as I stand watching out my back door. The robin singing may or may not be the same one that has nested in that same spot last year and the year before and the year before that. Only he knows for sure. He sings of his place, his longing, his history of being a robin, all in a tune as old as time.
Singing for birds has less to do with enjoyment than it does with declaring territory and lusty intentions. For people, singing has always evoked a feeling of community and if you’ve seen the videos of the people in Italy singing out their windows as they practiced their “social distancing” you know there is an element of solidarity and joy behind it.
I’ve heard it said that children sing before they talk and dance before they walk. Whether or not that is technically true, we do seem made to express ourselves through sound and motion, not just words spoken or written on paper. As we all do our best to make it through these trying times, I suggest we listen for the songs nature is singing to us.
She sings through the breezes, the waves sliding into shore, the tiny frogs looking for love. We can hear her songs in the rustle of grasses, the bees in the flowers and the birds in the trees.
We must isolate to protect the vulnerable, perhaps even ourselves. As a result we have lost our contact, our chance to communicate in person. How ironic is it that the screens we’ve been bemoaning for years are now our only contact with our loved ones and friends? We’ve lost our jobs, our incomes, even some of our savings and yet, somehow, we can still find our voices and sing. There is still joy and love and hope all around us and within us.
Step outside and watch the sun rise. Hum along as the chorus of birdsong gets louder and louder. Close your eyes and smile. This hard time shall pass. In the meantime, “Sing, sing a song, sing out loud, sing out strong.” (— from “Sing,” by Joe Raposa).
Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist, and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at www.capecodartandnature.com.