Monday, September 19, 2011

`Qualities We Admire and Talk About'

Through the kitchen window I watched hummingbirds at the feeders, hovering like wasps around rotting plums, when something flashed in the crape myrtle along the back fence. The blossoms are pink shading to magenta, and what I saw was yellow shading to orange, the color of a persimmon. I saw it again and knew, despite my obvious ignorance of bird distribution, it was a Baltimore oriole, one of the gaudiest North American birds. Its name is from the Latin aureolus, “golden.” Dickinson called the oriole “One of the ones that Midas touched.” Go here to see photographs of one taken last week here in Houston.

Like the scarlet tanager and indigo bunting, the oriole imports unlikely tropical colors to the North. Exotics are always a treat to see, but the thrill of novelty fades. (Dr. Johnson, wrong for once, on Tristram Shandy: “Nothing odd will do long.”) My tastes run to plainer beauties. Consider Mimus polyglottos, the Northern mockingbird, state bird of Texas, an avian post-modernist recycling the sounds of other birds. I heard one in upstate New York simulating the gurgle of water in a downspout. In Adventures with a Texas Naturalist (1947), Roy Bedichek devotes three chapters to the mockingbird, a bird with whom he obviously feels some affinity:
“The mockingbird has no color, no peculiarity of form, is of conventional size for the passerine order to which he belongs, never appears in great numbers, can’t be eaten, and is not a pest unless there is ripe fruit about the place…Yet inconspicuous as he is in appearance, if a poll were taken throughout his range, he would come forward in the upper five per cent of the birds readily recognized. There are dozens of other birds just as common that we see every day and never think to ask the names of. It is the mockingbird’s personality, even more than his song, which distinguishes him. He has qualities we admire and talk about.”

1 comment:

Pete said...

I agree with you about plainer beauties. My favorite is the junco, which is positively monk-like in hue.