Every night, just after midnight, the mockingbird that resides in the holly tree outside our bedroom window begins to sing. He is so loud, his songs so varied and complex, he wakes me up. I lie there listening to his trills, chirps and long mellifluous melodies.
This must be what happened to the great English lyric poet John Keats. Dying, and unable to sleep one night, he wrote “Ode to a Nightingale” with the lines, “More than ever seems it rich to die / To cease upon the midnight with no pain / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley, who also died young, paid homage to the “blithe spirit” of skylarks for filling heaven with “profuse strains of unpremeditated art.” Insomnia apparently played a part in the genius of romantic poets.
I will not wax lyrical on the artistry of our mockingbird. Most, if not all, of his songs are plagiarized. His powers of mimicry are so awesome, he can imitate the sirens of approaching fire engines.
This little gray fellow moved into our holly tree here in Baltimore about three years ago, attracted by the thick, thorny foliage, a perfect nesting place. He has been singing his heart out ever since, hoping without success to attract a mate.
Mockingbirds are famous for defending their territory aggressively. Once I saw our mockingbird fluttering frantically against the side of our car parked at the curb. He was charging the side view mirror. Evidently he had caught sight of himself in the mirror and was trying to drive off the intruder.
That was one possible explanation. Another is that he caught sight of himself and imagined it was his long-awaited mate. He was engaged not in combat but in a lovelorn waltz.
I find myself thinking about birds, as well as honeybees, often these days — the canaries in our mine.
A just-released report by the Audubon Society warns, “Since 1967, the average population of the common birds in steepest decline has fallen by 68 percent. Some individual species nosedived as much as 80 percent. All 20 birds on our National Common Birds in Decline List lost at least half their populations in just four decades.”
As for honeybees, beekeepers across the country are reporting “empty hive syndrome,” the mysterious disappearance of all their bees.
I grew up on a dairy farm in Sequim, Wash. Among my warmest memories are walking across the pastures of our farm in the evening, hearing the joyous song of meadowlarks perched on fence posts. I’d look up and behold dozens of barn swallows swooping gracefully in pursuit of flies and mosquitoes. As for honeybees, they were everywhere in the lush alfalfa and clover or our blooming orchard.
We still own farmland in that valley. Yet it is years since I heard a meadowlark sing. Maybe it’s because most of the fence posts are gone as developers build one big McMansion after another on once unspoiled farmland.
The swallows, too, are in steep decline. One reason is that most of the barns have fallen down. And I now watch anxiously for the arrival of honeybees. It seems to me they too are not as plentiful. Our family has made a commitment to keep our 55 acres in farmland, one of only a few parcels of farmland left in our beautiful valley. It is a small step in the struggle against developer greed.
It doesn’t do any good to give in to moods of despair. Greg Butcher, the Audubon Society’s director of bird conservation, tells us that the culprit in the decline of songbirds is loss of “local habitat and national environmental trends” as well as global climate change.
Saving the birds is “crucial to the well-being of humans as well,” Butcher says in an audio message on the Audubon Society web site. “Only citizen action can make a difference for the birds and the state of our future.”
In my youth, the bald eagle had vanished from the Dungeness Valley. Then came Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” and DDT was banned. Now, we have several nesting pairs of these majestic birds soaring above the Dungeness River on our farm. We are struggling to revive the salmon and steelhead, a staple of their diet, in the Dungeness. Saving the bald eagle is one of the environmental movement’s greatest success stories.
And all the news is not bad in Baltimore either. We have a raintree in our front yard. I was standing on the front porch this morning and heard a buzzing among the raintree blooms. The tree was swarming with honeybees. I breathed a little easier.
Tim Wheeler (greenerpastures21212 @yahoo.com) is national political correspondent for the People’s Weekly World.