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Sing, Birds, Keep Singing

March 31, 2020

Summer is i’cumen in

Sing, laud, cuckoo

— Cuckoo Song, mid-13th century

In southern Indiana, birds begin to sing in mid-February. First, we hear the early chirps and warbles from sparrows and finches, chickadees and wrens, and a multitude of tiny birds. Soon after come the bigger cardinals and robins, arriving in flocks and joining their voices to the chorus of their smaller cousins. As the sun continues its march toward summer, mourning doves coo counterpoint to the melodies of the rest. Sing birds, keep singing.

By March, each morning we hear a few bright voices rise to greet the dawn before the sun is even over the horizon. Soon after, an avian choir fills the air with birdsong that will not cease until dusk. Males loudly claim territory and flaunt brilliant plumage to lure potential mates. Never is the cardinal as red as it is in early spring. The goldfinch is resplendent in a jacket of brightest yellow, and even the humble house sparrow looks a little spiffier than usual. And, oh, how they sing. Sing birds, keep singing.

By April, grass as green as emeralds and spring flowers of every color burst from the brown mud of winter and cover lawns and gardens, woodlands and meadows. Trees and flowering shrubs everywhere dazzle all pink and yellow and blue and white, and their blossoms fill the air with perfume. In May, we have chives and asparagus and sweet strawberries to eat. By June, summer is indeed a-comin’ in, and cows and calves, ewes and lambs, goats and kids fill pastures in the countryside. People leave their houses and bask in the warmth of the late spring sun. And the birds keep singing on. Sing birds, keep singing.

In my corner of southern Indiana, there are no cuckoos to herald the summer’s advent. Instead of the cuckoo’s song, I wait for the call of the gray catbird. With its arrival, I am sure that summer has at last come in. Catbirds dance in and around thickets of honeysuckle, and their jazzy improvisational, improbably long songs delight me. And songs, in the plural, is an accurate description of the jazz-like, sounds a catbird makes. In recent years I’ve come to call them scatbirds – the avian equivalent to legendary jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald. Sing birds, keep singing.

Once, I lived in northern Illinois near a cattail marsh, and our harbinger of spring with its promise of summer to come was neither cuckoo nor catbird. Rather, the bird I listened for each spring was the redwing blackbird. Once its conk-la-reeee arrived, it never seemed to cease. The air was still cool, but the trill of the blackbirds’ song signaled summer just around the corner, and I loved that sound.

I loved that sound because the redwing blackbirds also heralded the almost-end of the school year. Freedom lay just a few weeks away, and my friend Jeanne and I stopped paying attention to our homework and focused instead on escaping the house and running wild through hayfields and climbing the tallest trees in the windbreaks and stalking tadpoles in the scum-filled pond. And the blackbirds sang. Sing birds, keep singing.

The conk-la-reeee of the blackbirds’ presence marked the margins of the muck-bottomed pond where we caught tadpoles and dared each other to wade into the ooze and slime of the green scummy algae that clotted the surface of the water. Quicksand lay below the surface, we told each other, so we only ventured in up to our shoe tops. The blackbirds were none too pleased with our presence in their territory, and sometimes they’d chase us away, our mud-soaked sneakers squelching as we ran back home. That was in nesting season, our mothers told us as they made us hose off our shoes. And still the blackbirds sang. Sing birds, keep singing.

I am sure there were other birdsongs in the summers of our tadpole years, but I don’t remember them. I don’t remember them, but I do miss the blackbirds. I am old now, and I live in an urban forest, far away from the cattail marshes of my childhood. Now, I mark the arrival of summer and its tadpole-less freedom by the song of the catbird. Sing, catbird, sing, and I’ll know that summer’s here.

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