Some birds


Why do they call it drumming, what pileateds do? Why not knocking? A tree is more door than drum. Bark bears little resemblance to skin or cured hide. But the hammered beats of a pileated woodpecker are far more rapid than any rap of a knuckle – too fast, in fact, for a casual listener to count. Can we imagine being summoned by such a sound? What winged visitant bears a blazing crest & is given to such bouts of maniacal laughter? What door opens downward, into the earth?


Wet from its bath, a scarlet tanager lands on a dead branch in the midday heat like a hallucinated fruit. This is that hoarse singer, I think, that robin with a frog in its throat. I watch from the porch as he pivots twice, then darts up out of sight: less an exotic morsel than the rampant tongue.


“Oh, that?” I said – & thus the otherwise unremarkable, two-syllable song of the Acadian flycatcher might as well be committed to memory.


Making oneself at home in a bone-dry thorn scrub no one else could love & hailing all visitors: this is the golden-cheeked warbler’s perilous way.


A pair of starlings up under the eaves is for us, out here in the hills, a novel occurrence. Though with my gaze drawn so often lately toward the northeast, my thoughts circling that high bog set in a ring of mountains & the nearby hollow full of ancient hemlocks – blank spaces bristling with arrows on the highway engineer’s map – with all that on my mind, it takes me a while to notice these two new tenants, noisy as they are.

But the male starling’s a ventriloquist, I swear he can throw his voice. And his range – odd rasping cries, hollow knocks with thrush-like runs dubbed in… I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t caught him in the act, beak ajar. Black wings flopped & rattled with each convulsive ripple of the nape, spilling iridescence in the noonday sun. As if he’d swallowed some dark rainbow & was trying to bring it back up.

The journal I’m always meaning to keep could well carry the title Year of the Starlings, were it not for this other thing that’s been robbing me of sleep: nothing but an engineer’s wet dream, an impossible outcome, I try & tell myself, even as night after restless night fixes it more & more firmly in my mind’s eye. Yesterday morning we all heard, quite distinctly, an infant wailing from somewhere in the middle of the sky. I run around the house & there sits the starling on the ridge of the roof, head cocked to one side like a diabolical robin, waiting for some untimely nightcrawler to make a move.

(Originally written in 2002. Proposed routes for a highway bypass through Rothrock State Forest, east of State College, PA, were eventually removed from consideration after intense public pressure.)


In every flock of blue jays, there’s one who learns to impersonate a red-tailed hawk, does a spot-on rendition of that piercing shred of sky. You’ve heard it, whether you know it or not: on TV & in the movies, it’s the literal call of the wild, regardless of geography.

One can understand how a mob of jays might respond to the shriek of a police whistle. But humans hear fierce defiance & thrill to images of freedom: straight through the wilderness, a highway traveled by a lone SUV while some generic eagle-like bird circles a nearby peak.

The real redtail picks at carrion by the side of the interstate or chases pigeons in Central Park, alternately aped & persecuted by the brazen jays.

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