As if on cue, I awoke on the first day of spring to an insistent squawking of blackbirds and grackles in the magnificent silver maple that dominates my front yard. Their notes, though harsh, were welcome. The return of birdsong, after what always seems to be a too-long winter, is unfailingly sweet.
This is especially true in a place like Maine, where many species depart this venue with the arrival of the first snows (robins seem to be in the greatest hurry). Others simply fall silent. It goes something like this: One day the birds are singing in the branches and flitting about the feeder; then, the next day - nothing. The dooryard is suddenly quiet, and that's that.
Such a loss is not easy for me to accept. I live in a rural area and there is something unnatural about a forested landscape ungraced by the voices of its inhabitants. I understand the situation of those species that remain behind: Without a canopy of obscuring leaves, they are vulnerable in the extreme. Silence is the first line of defense if they are to come through the winter in good stead.
The return of birds' voices is a palpable signal that we are not only "over the hump" in the seasonal sense, but slouching inexorably toward spring in all its effulgence. I feel the reawakening on many levels - physical, mental, and emotional. I want to get up in the morning, I want to go outside, I want to linger there, awash in avian tones that are nothing if not optimistic, as if the birds are saying that better (i.e., brighter and warmer) days are coming. And who's to say that birds are not as inspired as we about the coming of spring? I recall, years ago, reading a novel by Anne Tyler in which she wrote something to the effect that birds sing for no other reason than that they are happy.
My teenage son notices certain changes coming over me with the advent of spring, but he probably does not suspect that they are linked to the redux of the birds. He sees me filling the feeder with fresh thistle seed; he watches as I unpack a cake of suet and load it, ever so gingerly, into its little hanging cage. He watches as I strew cracked corn along the riverbank as a gesture of welcome toward the mallards; and he scratches his head with curiosity as I nail half an orange to an ash tree in the hope of wooing back the Baltimore orioles that graced our backyard last summer.
In a matter of days, a couple of weeks at the most, we are aswarm with birds, and my son accepts them simply as part of our landscape, which of course they are. Living as we do along a river, we occupy the happy interface between water and land. I cannot admit to a partiality for waterfowl as opposed to the landlubbing birds; I enjoy them equally and consider myself fortunate for the rattle of the kingfisher as well as the pointed "ick" of the rose-breasted grosbeak. The throaty croak of the heron that wanders along the bank commands no more respect from me than the fragile, rather timid "fee-bee" of the chickadee. They are all fine.
I find myself wishing, at times, that I could encourage in my son a genuine interest in birds. But he is of an age where such a preoccupation is akin to standing still. He wants to do big things, see big places, move quickly to wherever it is he is going in both the short and long terms.
Last summer, he came to me one day and told me there was a cat in the backyard that wouldn't stop mewing. I went out and listened. Then I smiled. "That's not a cat," I said. "It's a catbird." And then I showed him a neat trick. I approached the hedgerow of lilacs where I thought the bird was, and I began to clap. Within a few moments the sleek, slate-gray creature appeared on a branch and threw me an inquisitive look. My son gave me his own curious glance, and I think it contained the merest hint of admiration.
I accept that my son may never share my avidity for birds. That's OK. We are all different. There are things that tickle his fancy and not mine. It's not as if he seeks to deny me my pleasure. I take comfort in knowing there are others who seem to resonate to the same chord as I. They sometimes walk past my house, and if they pause to look closely, they will see chickadees and goldfinches, herons and kingfishers, grosbeaks and grackles, and - lording over it all - a tall, lanky man standing before the lilacs, clapping.
They won't know what I'm up to, but if they assume I'm clapping simply because I'm happy, who's to say they're wrong?