next best thing to a rooster

by bam

at 4:39, he kicks in. which, even for a girl who dreams of scarecrows and rolling hills embroidered with french knots of bush beans and curlicue cucumbers on the vine, is a tad farmerish.
i mean the night is still rather much the order of the hour. only the barest bit of blue is beginning to dribble into the batter. mostly, it is black out. it is still fine time for keeping eyes closed and dreams a-rollin’. for not yet planting feet on floorboards.
ah, but papa cardinal doesn’t think so. apparently, he thinks the street needs a rooster. either that, or it’s the only open slot in his busy schedule for what sounds like a one-on-one tutorial, with a little fellow not long out of the nest, a little fellow with some throat work on the docket.
the yodel class, perhaps, demands an early start, to convey the fine points of the warble before the noisy day drowns out the session. papa cardinal seems to have a student, a not-so-learned feathered thing who needs to pick up a thing or two.
in the vocal department.
and so, just outside my window, the one i’ve opened for the breeze, papa and his protege go on and on. he seems to be instructing in the fine art of waking up the neighbors.
first it’s papa, a proud, thick, much assured, “whoit, whoit, whoit, whoit.” then, a little less assuredly, a little wobbly, the echo comes. or tries to come. it’s more a half-baked, “wha, wha, wha.”
which, come to think of it, is not unlike a baby child learning how to exercise its grave displeasure with the grownup world, a world where milk might be forgotten were it not for throaty hollers.
it goes on, the echoing, for a good 45 minutes. before the whoit-wha drill winds into silence. break time, maybe, when the instructor flutters off to down some worms, pump up his lungs again.
i don’t mind a single lusty note. don’t mind one bit all the racket in the leafy classroom, just beyond the would-be sleeping chamber.
frankly, i crave a rooster.
alas, village laws won’t let that happen. not unless he comes with muzzle. which would, i think, defeat the purpose.
so i go with red bird. serenading the dawn away.
and i realize, right away, this waking up to a feathered version of the radio in my ear, is far superior to the squawking of the morning’s news.
would i take a “whoit, whoit, whoit” over scratchy deep-throat spelling out the casualties in iraq, or the latest blunder on capitol hill? you betcha. sign me up for cardinal broadcast, early on the a.m. dial.
it’s the closest i will probably come to waking up, on a daily basis, to the full-throttle cock-a-doodle of ol’ rudy rooster. a sound that when i was little i heard a dozen times a day, at least. and not because we lived on any kind of farm. just because the hippie neighbors played doctor dolittle and stuffed a whole menagerie in their old orphanage, right across the fence.
much as i don’t mind, though, there is a little problem. i share a bed, you see, with a fellow who would like to sign that bird up for a tonsillectomy. one that required putting that throat on ice, oh, for about a year or two. but only in the pre-dawn hours.
by day, that bright red would-be rooster brings joy to the nth power. even to the sleepy fellow with the pillow on his head.
it is like having your very own treetop sentry. the way he clings to one yard as if he owns it. which of course he does.
we are poachers on the cardinal’s turf. and he is deep in the task of teaching yet another generation a thing or two about singing from on high.
and i, up in my bed, get to listen in on class. the more i listened, the more i knew, this was something sacred going on. i had seen, just the other week, the fine art of teaching flying. and now i was listening in on how to sing like a cardinal.
we are not the only species who spend our hours teaching our young just how to be. the chain of evolution carries on, sometimes taught in warbles and flapping wings. and if we pay attention, we too can sing along.
because i find this whole thing about as amazing as anything i’ve considered in the last month or two, i looked it up, in a fine fine book i’ve got, a book called “the birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of north american birds,” by paul ehrlich, david dobkin and darryl wheye (simon & schuster, 1988).
there, on page 601, ehrlich & co. talk all about how birds learn their songs. some birds, it seems, are hatched knowing all the lyrics. but many, the northern cardinal among them, need to go to school.
“the learning of songs is a gradual process that takes place over a period of weeks or months,” ehrlich writes. “typically, a vague, jumbled, ‘subsong’ appears first, which then gradually is transformed into a more structured, but still quite variable ‘plastic song.’ the end point of this process is the production of a stable repertoire of ‘crystallized’ songs.”
these birders go on to tell us that the “social bonds to the song tutor (usually the male parent)” make all the difference in terms of what songs are learned. i found that bit of reading rather thrilling as it spelled out what i’d been thinking: this was a father-son singing thing going on. i was not imagining the echoing.
there is also a theory, one i find quite fine, that birds are born with “auditory templates,” meaning a neurological blueprint of what a song should sound like. a bird, then, develops its song by matching what it hears with what’s inside its little brain.
it is this, the birders tell us, that helps a baby bird to filter out those sounds that have no meaning, while drumming in the ones that fit their so-called lyrics. (imagine if a cardinal took in the sounds, say, of a squawking squirrel. or, worse, the cement mixers that rumble through the alley. egad, it would be a noisome chorus.)
again, this bird-song filter is not unlike a human baby who is born with the capacity to make the sounds of every human language, but over time develops only those that it hears again and again. which is why a grownup learning chinese might struggle, and a baby doing the same could pick it up just as easily as any other language.
once learned, a bird’s song is most essential. not only does it mark its turf, and keep out intruders, it is also known that a male singing stimulates ovarian development and accelerates nest building in females. or, get this, “females use size and complexity of the song repertoire to assess a male’s overall potential ‘fitness’ as a partner.”
sounds to me like checking out the pecs at some singles bar, or spring-break beach.
only, in the world of birds, such shopping is so refined. a warble here. a warble there. a song is born. a pairing, too.
no wonder papa bird is hard at work, teaching all those trills. it is the song of heaven being imparted. and i’m not slamming windows, shutting out such joyful noise.
even if it jolts me wide awake, at 4:39 each morn.

oh goodness, apologies for the late start today. besides the warbling, there was a sick camper to attend to, all night long. my questions this morning are these: do you too crave a rooster? do you delight in waking up to birdsong? do you hear it? or is your air conditioner humming, drowning out the morning chorus? have you ever thought before about the fine art of teaching song to bird? or how little children take in the world of sound? which sounds matter, which do not? i tell you it takes your breath away, to be witness to such heaven-sent instruction.

twas a big weekend in the newspaper. i’ve told you i had a story to tell about the finest farmer lady i’ve met in forever. and that story now is told. you can find it here, which will link you over to my day job. it is a story i hope you’ll not forget. i know i won’t. we are all, all the richer for understanding the story of beauregards farm.

oh, p.s. about the rooster perched up there above. i tried, i really did, to get papa singing in the trees. but what with the leaves and all, it is rather challenging to get him in the crosshairs of my lens. thank heaven, i have long had a rooster thing. this little fellow was more than happy to pose for pictures. he sends a mighty cock-a-doodle-doo.