pass the jelly
“psst,” i can hear them saying, nudging with their wings, “down there,” now pointing with their beaks. “dive-bomb,” one whispers to another. “take a hit. the lady’s cracked open the jelly and the oranges. and not just any jelly, pal. she went for smucker’s. dang.”
it’s pay day for the orioles. the baltimore orioles. and, nope, not the men who run in circles, swing at flying balls, get paid more than you and i will probably ever see.
i mean, of course, the orange ball of feathers that will make you gasp, will make you rouse the children, rouse the dead most likely, when you see one settling down at the oranges and the jelly you’ve left out for them, your diner always open.
the class today, as promised some time back, is migration 101. we are learning together, you and i, so i promise not to get too over-your-head. only so much as to make you swoon, like i am. i am in full swoon over here.
this here, from just the other day ‘til end of may, then trickling into june, is the thickest of the thick.
these are the days when birds are crowding in the clouds, nudging, budging, making way to make their northern nests and spend the summers lolling in the shady woods. sort of like you, perhaps, headed off to your northwoods cabin, except without the fishing poles and the bug spray.
the first, best thing you need, should you decide that swooping orangeballs will set you right this spring, is rather straightforward.
one quick trip to the grocery should do it. you can leave the kiddies in the car, if they’re not of an age that would leave you under lock and key, behind bars, making your quick trip to the grocery not so quick after all.
you’ll dash for just two goodies: a bag of oranges, any sort will do. just so they’re orange, and not greenish-orange. no self-respecting oriole will go for orange of other color.
next, please, traipse (skipping works fine, too, try skipping through the grocery, see what happens when you skip) to the jelly aisle. there, you will pass over all the other concord grape concoctions, you will settle only–finicky, yes, but this is for the orioles, after all–for the smucker’s.
in birdie circles (which we now are in), smucker’s is the whispered, venerated brand for which there is no substitute.
it is, plainly, the opiate of the orioles, if you really want to know. which of course you do.
“the birds go nuts,” says our old friend t.j. , the bird man, the one who teaches much. “some people swear by smucker’s. isn’t that ridiculous?”
to think a beaked thing would be so discriminating. perhaps they ptu-ptu the lesser grapes, spit out mere mortal brands.
but enough with all this high-brow jelly. what you want to do is tuck it into little jelly cups–yes, you read that right–for your little flying friends. pyrex works well, says t.j. and i’m sure they wouldn’t turn up their beaks at spode.
next, slice oranges. leave them on the ground, or lying on your fire escape. if you want to get ahead of the class you could pound a long nail through a 2-by-4, and impale the juicy half. this little trick keeps the ol’ greedy squirrels from making off with your navel. oh my.
in case you wondered: not only are your oranges there for all their juice, they are there as can’t-miss-from-the-clouds fruity billboards, backyard beacons to the sky.
as all the winged things are flap-flap-flapping on their birdie byway, en route, say, from the andes mountains or the yucatan, they’ll zero in on flash of orange and come diving from on high. sort of like the “open” sign flapping on the diner door.
the one last thing you want to make absolutely sure you always have enough of in these dry migration days is water, water, water. can’t have enough. the little birds, just think, have been flapping for miles and miles and miles and their little birdie throats are rather parched, to say the least.
so those, my fine-footed friends, are the to-do’s on your bring-on-the-birds migration list.
here is the why, here is where i swoon:
far far away, in thick jungles and tropical forests, the light of spring begins to change. the days are longer. the light, brighter.
little molecules of light, it seems, poing a little spot in the back of the birds’ brains. that spot, a switch, then lets loose a surge. their little bodies are filled, are flooded, with hormones that tell the birds: go north. build nest. get yourself back to where you and your mama and your mama’s mama once hatched.
and so, at nightfall, when winds are calm, when predators are few, when air is cooler and thus less dehydrating, the winged things take flight. sometimes by the tens and tens of thousands. often, they catch the updraft of a warm front, and come wafting in on southerly winds. no fools, they don’t flutter upstream, like those silly salmon.
my friend t.j. tells me that, true to the book, night before last, whole swarms came in, came in on the warm front that made us wake up without need for sweaters.
and, thus, when my mama called first thing to say. “the warblers arrived overnight,” she was right. my mama who knows the birds the way she knows her breathing, she woke up and knew the warblers came.
time-out to connect a dot: our rabbi, when asked, but how do you know there’s a God if you can’t see God, always comes back with this simple question, have you ever seen the wind?
all the warblers floating in on the warm front makes me think that one night, every may, the answer to that question is, yes, i saw the wind the night the golden-throated warblers, by the thousands, blew in.
t.j. tells me the birds will fly six to eight hours at a stretch, through the night. some birds will burn a quarter of their body fat in a single night.
as night gives way to daylight, as the first scattered rays of sunbeam peek over the horizon, the birds, exhausted, parched, famished, begin their dawn descent.
they look for sumptuous plots of land, a cherry tree frothed in its springtime meringue, an old dead river birch where bugs by the billions will make for a bottomless all-you-can-eat buffet.
they settle into limbs, nod off in birdie naps. but, mostly, intently, they inhale the fuel they need to flap again. for some, this is the byway’s end. your backyard might be their summer cabin. for others, there are miles to go before they finish flapping.
they’ll look for water. and oranges. and if they hit the jelly jackpot, little pyrex cups of smucker’s concord grape jelly.
indeed, it’s thick out there these days. so thick, and so raucous with all the birdsong, crazy people like t.j. and my mama, and now me, can’t get anything done.
we here along lake michigan–and that’s all of chicago–are smack dab in the fast lane of the flyway that stretches from south america to near the north pole. there are four main flyways through the united states: the atlantic, the pacific, the mississippi (that’s us) and the central, which is midway between the mississippi and pacific.
you can actually trace where we are in the migration by what birds are landing in your yard. the day the orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks roll in, you know the great migration has begun. for the next three weeks the trees will be alive with bouncing, bopping birds. the air, dense with flitting, flapping, blue jay swooping, warbler darting.
but best of all, just stand outside and listen. in fact, you needn’t even go outside. just stand still. just listen.
it is the season for keeping open all the doors and windows.
there is the sound of heaven right within your reach. and it will come winging to you for just a little jelly spooned into a cup.
all the more sweetly if you make it smucker’s.
class dismissed. any questions?
p.s. thanks for putting up with my bird-brained madness.