A mysterious prelude to spring

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What was that bird singing outside my kitchen window? Despite a stack of homework for my graduate studies, I dropped my pen and grabbed my binoculars. Outside I scanned a redbud tree and spied the almond-shaped silhouette of the trilling bird. With a flick of his tail, he hopped behind the heart-shaped leaves and hid. He and I repeated this scene, but I couldn't persuade the bird to pose in light that revealed his characteristics.

During my childhood, I sometimes arrived home from school to find my mother in a similar stance, staring through binoculars up into the arching American elm trees that shaded our home. The songs of migrating spring warblers pulled her outside.

In order to erase our ornithological ignorance, my parents played records of birdcalls. The hum of the recording equipment droned in the background like a far-off bagpipe while the ornithologist whispered: "Cardinal or Hermit Thrush." During school holidays when my brother and I wearied of rain or snow, my mother used the recording as a quiz game. She would play a birdcall and see which one of us could identify it first. My brother usually won, and even today he's the first to spot a flying pileated woodpecker or recognize the voice of the vesper sparrow.

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Eventually my mother gave me a tape of birdcalls. I pulled that tape out and listened for this new bird song, but I couldn't find any that matched my pudgy, shy friend. Confusing me more, I heard another strange bird (or was it the same one?) trilling each evening. The pitch of the call seemed similar to that of my daytime friend, but in the twilight, the only feathered creature I could identify was a cardinal chipping from inside a honeysuckle bush.

At last one morning I spotted a rusty oval-shaped bird with the characteristic long beak of a wren and that tipped-up tail. The gold and red sassafras leaves surrounding our house declared it was too late for a house wren to remain in Michigan.

My bird guide confirmed that a Carolina wren had discovered the thickets near my house. He was the twilight triller and the creature that called: "tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle, tea." As the days grew shorter, I assumed this Carolina wren would fly to the states bearing his name. But he still flits in the leafless redbud. The cold has silenced his voice. But perhaps as the returning sun warms the lengthening days of February, I will hear "tea kettle, tea kettle" mingle with the drip of the eaves. A welcome prelude to the symphony of bird song I await each spring.

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