Saturday, May 16, 2009

For the Birds

Spring in Maine would not be the same without waking up at 5:30 in the morning to the sound of hundreds of different species of horny birds.

As comedian Lewis Black said, Mother Earth never gets what she really wants for Earth Day, which is for all of us to die. But at least we humans are a little more discreet when it comes to love.

The average human male will take a female out for quiet conversation over a nice meal. Then he will take her to some sort of recreational activity where she might consume more inhibition-loosening chemicals.

Finally, they will go to a private location to embark upon that tender moment when she finally tells him she thinks of him as a friend, almost a brother, really.

This method has served human quite well for millennia, you must agree.

Male birds, on the other hand, are nature’s obnoxious, desperate players. They get up at the crack of dawn to sing “romantic” overtures at their female counterparts, and the females sing back their annoyed rejections (“not now, I’m trying to sleep”), and eventually get so tired of the noise that they agree to just go ahead and mate with one of them, already, just to shut him up.

They do it, right out in plain view, where anybody can see with a decent set of binoculars, just like some B-list celebrity.

Then they go off together to poop on somebody’s brand new car.

Is it any coincidence so many species birds are threatened or dying off?

I thought perhaps I wasn’t trying hard enough to understand and appreciate my feathered friends, so I bought a bird book, the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America (Fifth Edition).

After just a few minutes of use, this book has become an invaluable source of frustration and wasted time.

For example, I tried to identify a bird in my yard with a giant red patch on its head and a propensity for pounding on trees right outside my window. I wanted to find out if it was endangered, and if not, what steps I could take to endanger it.

After searching through hundreds of sketched images, I found the yellow-bellied sap-sucker, a name you would do well not to utter in a crowded country-western bar. This bird prefers to be called sphyrapicus various, and I don’t blame it.

Peterson tells me the sap-sucker’s call is a “nasal mewing note, or squeal: cheeerrrr, slurring downward.” What the hell does that mean?

Then I realized that the Internet is much better for this sort of thing. I visited, viewed several photos of this creature, and listened to an actual recording of its call, which Peterson had all wrong. It actually sounds like a sneezing mouse stuck inside a dog’s squeeze toy.

I had confused the sap-sucker with the Northern Flicker (inexcusable, I know), whose song Peterson describes as, “wick wick wick wick wick, etc.”

Really? “Etc.”? Are you sure there isn’t one more “wick” before the et cetera?

Then I listened to the recording on the Internet; it turns out the Northern Flicker sounds like a dog’s squeeze toy caught in the fan belt of a 1994 Buick Skylark.

If you’ve ever tried sleeping through that, you’ll understand why I’m going to stop here and go take a nap.

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