Those of us who live year-round here on Cape Cod don’t pay much attention to spring, because we seldom actually see one. We maintain our winter rawness until at some point we start to sweat—and then we know it must be summer.
During April, for example, the average high was 52, the low 37. We had only 12 days recorded as “clear,” and two of them had exceptionally high winds.
If it weren’t for the arrival of the birds, which is now in full swing, we wouldn’t know it’s spring.
I like the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote:
All my life I have lived and behaved very much like a sandpiper, just running down the edges of different countries and continents, looking for something.
Maybe this is why I feel an affinity for the birds of Cape Cod, and the way their birdsong occurs as if by magic when you least expect it.
The birds start their day before dawn—4 A. M. out here on the far-eastern boundary of Eastern Daylight Saving Time, where the native Wampanoag called themselves “children of the first light.”
I don’t know why the birds are so excited so early; all they have to look forward to is a breakfast of worms and bugs. But after the quiet of winter here in Truro, 50-plus miles out in the Atlantic Ocean, the birdsong of spring is very welcome.
During the cold months, just about the only birds we hear are crows. Their barking hardly qualifies as song, though. Cooing mourning doves also winter on Cape Cod, as do robins, but they are seldom seen and more seldom heard. Robins, in fact, have convinced most people that they are harbingers of spring.
Cape Cod is a flyway for more than 350 species of birds that trek between the Arctic and Antarctic. The Outer Cape—where my Truro home is—presents a geographic position (at mid-latitudes and jutting into the Atlantic) that migrant birds find alluring. We also offer them an array of bird-welcoming habitats that make us a prime resting and feeding area. Lots of them remain for the entire summer: woodpeckers and whippoorwills, orioles and cardinals, bobwhites and finches.
Jo Knowles, author of Jumping Off Swings, takes a jaundiced view of all this:
I'm lying in my room listening to the birds outside. I used to think they sang because they were happy. But then I learned on a nature show they're really showing off. Trying to lure in some other bird so they can mate with it. Or let the other birds know not to get too close to their turf. I wish I never watched that show, because now all I think about is what those pretty sounds mean. And how they're not pretty at all.
For my part, I don’t care whether it’s wooing or warring that the birds are up to. The chorus of their calls makes me happy. I join with Douglas Malloch in proclaiming:
You have to believe in happiness, or happiness never comes. That's the reason a bird can sing. On his darkest day he believes in spring.
Even after they leave in autumn, the echoes of their songs linger. Here’s Thomas Bailey Aldrich:
What is more cheerful, now, in the fall of the year, than an open wood fire? Do you hear those little chirps and twitters coming out of that piece of apple wood? Those are the ghosts of the robins and blue birds that sang upon the bough when it was in blossom last spring. So I have singing birds all the year round.
If you don’t have access to real birds—or apple wood fires—here’s a link to some vicarious birdsong to brighten your day: http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/songwav.html
(This post is an updated and edited version of the one posted on May 3, 2014)
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