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Bird Songs
by Alita DeBerry

All winter we've had flocks and flocks of gold finches at our feeders; then all of a sudden, yesterday, there are none! All gone, as if their flight schedule was called and they simply dissapeared. No sound, no fanfare.

Most winters, we have purple finches and only see the gold toward the end of winter. But this time, it's the purple missing (not really purple, but rose). And as for them, the purple, I saw only one at the back porch feeders.

So swings nature's pendulum.

My friend and neighbor, Jerry McCorkle, had built a framework on the outer edge of the deck on which to hang feeders and wind chimes. I love it. Now at the kitchen sink I have a front-row seat on the feeding activities.

We birdwatchers are usually thought of as harmless kooks, and my hubby the Frenchman can testify to that. However, in spite of his detachment, he gets excited now and then when the red belly woodpeckers are dining.

There is so much beauty and diversity in nature, for as John Burroughs wrote that upon a hobby of bird-watching, a new interest is added to one's life, especially in the rurals.

Neltje Blanchan, a long ago naturalist, had written a century ago:

"Not to have so much as a bowing acquaintance with the birds that nest in our gardens or under the very eaves of our house; that haunt our woodpiles; keep our fruit-trees free from slugs; waken us with their songs, and enliven our walks along the roadside and through the woods, seems to be, at least a breach of etiquette toward some of our most kindly disposed neighbors."

Funny how tiny creatures can open up whole worlds of interest, as well as a million questions and a few occasional answers. But each day I am here, I find more and more to appreciate, and comforting is the knowledge that each and every little creature enhances the world of God's handiwork.

And I have to say that it was an editor friend through whom my own eyes and heart were first opened to the wonder of birds.

Of course, bird songs and bird nests were a part of early rural life, and as a child I had absorbed a smattering of bird facts -- the names of a few, the call of a few more like the mockingbird, cardinal and bluejay. My mother's favorite was the little wren. She thought they were such happy little things.

And hawks. They were a constant threat to Mama's chickens. How often I see her again in memory, dashing out the back door, waving her apron or a newspaper at "that stinking, aggravating hawk who's determined to catch another chicken."

The mother hen had cried her hawk-alarm cry, which Mama recognized instantly, knowing that wise old hen had seen the shadow of "that stinking bird." Mama knew the danger cry of her old dominicker hen, a cry that commanded her chicks to the shelter of her outspread wings.

Of course not everyone appreciates birds and bird songs and hens and chicks and wind chimes, as others of us do. All this is Dullsville to many, whose interests lie with larger things. To them a bird is just a bird -- and that bird, a sparrow.

Ms. Blanchan summed them up well: "To the uninitiated or uninterested observer, all small, dull colored birds are 'sparrows.'" I appreciated that thought, for it sums up my own early apathy.

And speaking of sparrows, I don't see the house sparrow much anymore; those that descended upon the eaves of the house. Mama despised them for being so noisy and nasty. Always they were a bane to any diligent housekeeper.

But the house sparrow is not really American. Ours is the English sparrow, native of Europe, brought here in 1850 as a novelty, belonging to the Old World Sparrow clan.

They were first brought to Brooklyn to rid shade trees of inch worms, which they did in no time. And they were such a novelty that folks tended to want to feed and cherish them.

But sad to say, not even all the insects and weed seeds they disposed of could begin to compensate for all the damage they do. It's not just the mess and noise, but they tend to harass and drive away more desirable birds.

Now you notice these sparrows mostly in cities, where they are a dirty and noisy nuisance. And when they set up housekeeping at the home of a spick and span housekeeper, they drive her to distraction.

Sparrows used to be to cities what pigeons now are. One day down on the pier in San Francisco, flock after flock of white pigeons pranced around our feet, cooing, begging for crumbs or peanuts, swooping down on the pavement and then, as one, they all arose with the swoosh of wind in their wings and soared over the trees and buildings -- but before we knew it, they were right back at our feet.

Now the perky little wren is a welcome friend and entertainer. They're a brave, dedicated little creature that will declare war on a hawk or crow that comes too near.

As Mama said, they love to be near people and would build a nest in your shirt pocket if you were still enough. One year a honeymooning pair found a tiny crack under our roof cap and we had them for boarders for several seasons, nesting in the insulation.

I loved those little wide awake singers. One day as I sat at the sewing machine, I didn't realize I was humming and whistling, "Hi, Lily, hi, Lily, hi low. . . " until a second voice chimed in and accompanied me. When I'd stop, he'd stop. I looked around, and finally found him on the window sill. What a duet we made, that little wren and I.

My goodness, what fascinating little feathered friends. I learned their habits and different songs. He arose early, she slept late, so he'd fly all around, chirping and calling, "Judy, judy, judy."

"And his song -- but a flute were more fit than a pen / To tell of the voice of the little brown wren."


Alita DeBerry has been writing professionally for twenty years, starting as a correspondent and feature writer for the Memphis COMMERCIAL APPEAL. For most of this time, Alita was also writing a column for several weeklies in the South. Her column has been published in the Atlanta JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION and her travel articles have appeared in several magazines.

Alita has been married to Horace DeBerry (the same man) for almost a half century. She refers to him in her columns as "The Frenchman." They have two daughters--Lisa and Stephanie.

The Deberry family has lived in various states--Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Colorado, California--and then retired to the home place in Carroll County, Mississippi, where Alita grew up. They've now stayed put for two decades.

CLICK HERE to read another of Alita's stories at USADS: "Old Fishing Village."
And here's another: A funeral to remember: Getting there is half the fun!

Write Alita at Scribbler211.


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