Sunday, September 7, 2014

Florida Air Combat

Northern Mockingbird By Karney Lee U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
         Connecticut has the Robin. Indiana and Illinois share the Cardinal. Florida? We have the Mockingbird. We get to share our state bird with Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. To read James Audubon’s description of this small gray bird, one would think it was a delightful addition to the bird kingdom. “They are not the soft sounds of the flute or of the hautboy that I hear, but the sweeter notes of Nature's own music. The mellowness of the song, the varied modulations and gradations, the extent of its compass, the great brilliancy of execution, are unrivalled.” See LINK.
          The bird Audubon was describing is not the bird I remember as a child.  Most of the year, we’d see them flitting harmlessly through the trees. But heaven help the unaware pedestrian during mockingbird mating season. Around April of every year, the birds pair up, build a nest and begin to aggressively attack anything or anyone that dares to come within range.
          As a child, it was my chore to walk the dog. I’d grab the leash, the dog, and a piece of rope. We’d ease out the front door and stand on the stoop, the dog anxious to get about her business. I peered around the air potato vine that circled the porch to see if I could spot the gray birds or their bright white flash of wings. As an aside, the air potato vine was introduced in 1905 and unknown to us in the early 1970s, would be considered an invasive plant by the state of Florida by the end of the 1990s. My granddad called it a billabong. Back to my mockingbird tale…
          I could hear the squawking in the tree growing in the middle of the front yard, but there were no birds to be seen. I stepped off the porch and raised the hand holding the rope over my head and began swirling it in a circle over my head as the dog and I cautiously took a step out from under the vine. I heard the angry shriek and the furious beating of wings over my head and ducked lower. With my body now as twisted as a contortionist in a circus side show, bent over with my arm swinging the rope over my head, the dog and I raced down the driveway toward the sidewalk. Still not safe, we continued past two houses before the bird gave up and returned to the nest.
          The dog and I could walk down the street and back in relative peace. But as we approached the house, the rope went into the air and the dance began again.
          My father would mow the lawn with a hat anchoring a towel draped over his head and falling past his shoulders. Except for the yard gloves protecting his hands and the grass stains on his sneakers, he looked a lot like a Bedouin traversing the desert, the mockingbirds screaming, circling and diving at his head like miniature Egyptian vultures fighting over particularly interesting carrion.
          Neighborhood cats seemed to wise up pretty quickly when it came to hunting mockingbirds. From the front porch, I could see the great hunters stalking their prey, confidently slinking across the lawn toward the tree in our front yard and out of my sight. They usually re-appeared within moments, a slash of terrified tabby running low to the ground as fast as their little legs could carry them. The mockingbirds dive bombed relentlessly until the poor cats dashed under a nearby car and sit there, eyes wide in fright. Cats usually didn’t make that mistake twice.
          In the last few years, sitting in the safety of my screened porch I've listened to the birds sing from the trees in the backyard. From my living room, I can open the front windows wide and listen and with my ever-hopeful cats, watch as all kinds of birds splash in sheer joy in the birdbath. I now have an appreciation for the songs they sing—even the mockingbird.
          But come April, I’ll still have a rope handy.


  1. Loved this post! I've heard mockingbirds, and even had one "mock" me when I whistled several different kinds of notes and tunes. They are remarkable. I didn't realize, though, how fierce they are. This was a real eye opener.