No better antidote to the pre-dawn blues than reading about the birds you’re up before.
This is one of those pieces of advice the giver would do well to remember to take more often himself, but here's what I recommend. Have a couple of field guides and bird books in the house, keep them within easy reach; when you find yourself wide awake in the predawn dark and the goblins and trolls start to work, grab those books and start reading about birds. It won't be exactly like the arrival of the eagles but it's much more of a solace to soul and mind than hopping on the internet and reading about the latest outrage or calamity or political idiocy you can't do anything about. Imagining birds will take you out of yourself, turn your thoughts towards what's good and beautiful in life, and keep you marginally hopeful and sane until the first real birds start to sing.
Around here the birds first up and singing are usually the robins. They're soon joined by cardinals followed by sparrows and chickadees. All interesting birds and worth reading more about despite their familiarity. But I'm not reading about them or species less common to the neighborhood and about which I'd normally be taking the opportunity to learn more about. Vireos, for example. I'm not up on vireos. And there are all those warblers to identify and keep sorted out. But I'm not reading about them. I'm reading about birds that are as familiar as the robins, cardinals, sparrows, and chickadees. Maybe more familiar because they're usually far more conspicuous.
For some reason, this morning, I've been reading about blue jays.
Most familiar of all is the petulant shriek of jay jay jay. Henry Thoreau remarked on the “unrelenting steel-cold scream of a jay, unmelted, that never flows into a song, a sort of wintry trumpet, screaming cold; hard, tense frozen music, like the winter sky itself.”
It's not as if I've never looked up blue jays before. But it seems that no matter how many times I've read about a species in the past, I'm always surprised by a fact striking me as new. And just now I was struck by this fact about blue jays.
Blue jays aren't blue.
At any rate, the pigment in their feathers is brown. That they appear blue is a simple trick of the light.
As are most things.
I probably knew that and forgot it or at least read it before and it didn’t stick. There are so many interesting facts about birds it’s impossible to keep every new fact in my head. New facts crowd others out of the mental nest. The ground around the tree where all my bird lore roosts is littered with broken egg shells of unfledged information.
Here's another “new” fact about blue jays.
They like to imitate the calls of other birds.
This was mildly disappointing to learn and I'll tell you why.
Up until this morning I thought we had hawks in the neighborhood.
We probably still do. They just don't visit as frequently as I thought based on how often I hear them or hear what up until now I assumed were hawks.
Routinely I'll hear a red tailed hawk scream and I'll go to the window or step off the porch into the yard and scan the sky, half-dreading and, I should be ashamed to admit, half-hoping to see one swoop down to pluck up one of the chipmunks who call our property home and I'll be surprised and disappointed to see that the sky is empty of raptors.
That's odd, I'll often think. It sounded so close, almost like it was right near by and practically at ground level, no higher up than the tops of the trees.
Darn blue jays.
None of my books say why they imitate hawks probably because the answer's obvious. It's a good way to scare off other birds, including actual hawks. Going by what is most easily observable about blue jays in any neighborhood---they like to hog the bird feeders-- I'd wager they mainly do it to have the cafeteria all to themselves.
Next time I hear a "hawk" that close and low I'll know to not bother looking up into the sky. I'll look into the branches of the nearest trees or across at the neighbor's feeders for a blue jay being a wise guy.
Five fifteen. The robins are having their say. Time for me to get on the road for Syracuse. If you're awake and in need of some comforting reading and you don't have your own guide books handy, visit Cornell's wonderful and handy website, All About Birds.
Let me know what you learn about vireos.