What do robins, meadowlarks, orange-crowned warblers and Swainson’s thrushes have in common? They are birds whose songs are permanently etched in my memory banks. There is something about bird songs that can bring you back to a time or place as few things can.
I love this little verse: “The kiss of the sun for pardon, the songs of the birds for mirth; one is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” The words, “songs of the birds for mirth,” are a bit of a puzzle as we tend to associate mirth with laughter. However, when I hear the songs of the birds just mentioned, I always smile — a real smile, the kind that says you are enjoying yourself very much. The dictionary refers to the Old English use of this word and associates it with “pleasure and joy.” Many bird songs or calls fall into that realm.
An orange-crowned warbler’s song is described as, “a colorless trill.” It is, but it’s a very pleasant little trill. I associate it with clouds of white and pink blossoms on fruit trees in early spring. To know the warblers are back means spring is really here, and I can only stop and listen. Somewhere nearby, a plain greenish little bird is combing through the blossoms, eating bugs and insects I am happy to see go.
Robins have a variety of calls and songs, and some are more pleasant than others. My favorite is this thrush’s evening song. It is heard in the spring and summer when the birds are on their nesting territory. Their first brood may even be in the nest. Somewhere in the yard or neighborhood, a robin signals day is almost done and the sun is setting. It’s a little like the call from the town crier heard long ago, telling a town’s inhabitants, “all’s well, all’s well.”
When my husband was in pharmacy school at Washington State University, we lived on the edge of Pullman in a very small trailer. The rolling Palouse hills were at our back door. That first spring, I woke up one morning to a bird song that carried me back to my childhood. When I asked my spouse, “What is that bird?” he looked at me like I was joking. “It’s a meadowlark.” He’d grown up in South Dakota not Western Washington, and meadowlarks were familiar birds. I’d never seen one — but I had heard one and often enough to make it one of my memories. When the meadowlark sings, I am back in my childhood home, a small farm in Kitsap County. The lilacs are in bloom, the sun is beginning to spread across the fields, and a meadowlark is singing. They have been gone from that spot for decades, but the memory is still mine.
By the time the Swainson’s thrush’s song echoes from the forest, summer is almost upon us. That song means days spent playing in the creek and catching frogs. It also awakens that pleasure you felt when school was out for the summer and days of being outdoors lay ahead. This bird’s song was one I shared with my children when they were growing up. I would impress upon them how special it was to me and how it was part of my happy childhood memories. They had to know that when the thrush sang its flute-like whistle, summer was here. That became a memory for my son, who surprised me one summer morning when he called from his bed. “Hey Mom, that bird you like is back!”
“The songs of the birds for mirth” is pretty perfect. I’m smiling right now — even though I can’t hear anybody singing.
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