Friday, July 20, 2012

Trip to England, Part 5: Blackbirds

When I was a kid growing up on Long Island in  New York, I sometimes got up very, very early to go outside on a summer morning and immerse myself in the sounds of the dawn chorus. I'd go out barefoot, because dewdrops beaded the grass so heavily that sneakers and socks would be soaked within a minute. The air was still soft and cool at this hour, and it rang with birdsong.

Mockingbirds, cardinals, robins, song sparrows, and other species sang as if there were no tomorrow--indeed, as if there would be no today if they didn't sing the sun into the sky.

We don't get much of a dawn chorus in my part of Seattle, so it was lovely to be in England in June, when the birds were in full swing as soon as the eastern sky began to grow pale around 4 a.m.

My favorite among these singers is the blackbird, a species we don't have here in the United States. We have plenty of black birds, but not blackbirds. The male of this species is clad in jet-black feathers set off by a bright orange-yellow bill. A yellow ring surrounds the inkdrop of his eye. The female wears more subdued brown, mottled plumage similar to that of a juvenile blackbird.

The male's song consists of fluting notes and chirps, a melody that blends the matter-of-fact cheer-up, cheerily song of its cousin, the American Robin, with the ethereal chimes of the eastern Wood Thrush. Sometimes he'll add a flourish that hints at the haunting downward spiral of a Veery's song or the upward one of a Swainson's Thrush.

Watching this bird as he forages really underscores his identity as a thrush (and not a relation of local birds such as the Red-winged Blackbird, which is in the same family as orioles). He resembles an American Robin who donned a black waistcoat before going out to do some worm-hunting. Otherwise, I could swear I was on home turf: the bird exhibited the same hoppity-hop, the same head-tilting as if he could hear the worms churning underground, the same dive-and-yank to retrieve his prey.

Perhaps the general cheerfulness of this bird has spared it from the burden of symbolizing bad luck, death, and darkness in popular culture, unlike ravens, crows, and vultures (of course, the fact that it doesn't scavenge battlefields helps, too).

But what about the four-and-twenty unlucky blackbirds who were baked into a pie and raised a ruckus when the pastry was split? Apparently these birds did frequently end up in the stews and soups of the poor, as they were a handy source of protein. Live birds flapping out of a pastry shell, however, seems to have been nothing more than a source of entertainment for the guests of the rich--though it's believed the popular nursery rhyme about this dish is really a coded appeal from Blackbeard for the recruitment of  new pirates.

Much more cheerful--and tuneful--is the Beatles' ode to the blackbird. And as someone who spent the first few days of a trip to England wandering around at 3 a.m.--not by choice outside in a dew-drenched garden but inside a house while others peacefully slept, undisturbed by jet lag--I can tell you that blackbirds definitely are "singing in the dead of night."