Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Good Omens

On the day I started this blog, I was heading out the back of my building about mid-morning when a hawk appeared on my right, swooped across the street in front of me, and disappeared behind the row of apartments on my left. Now, any beginning student of ancient Greek divination will tell you that seeing a bird of prey on your right is a good omen, but what followed was even better, because hot on the heels of that hawk was a crow.

Crows are the biggest, boldest, loudest, and most intelligent of the perching birds here in Southern Ontario, and one of the easiest marks for beginning birdwatchers. Though their raucous calls don't fit the usual patterns of bird language, crows do provide one very useful service to the bird community: they harry hawks. In a kind of unpaid 'neighbourhood watch' capacity, crows will gang up on an incoming red-tail, shrieking and dive-bombing it until it moves on to somewhere it can hunt in relative peace. You may recall that Princess Buttercup, in the famous film The Princess Bride, boasts at one point that her fiancĂ© Prince Humperdinck could track a falcon on a cloudy day; as it turns out, this isn't difficult, provided there are crows around.

On this sunny Tuesday morning three weeks ago I decided to track the hawk. Rounding the row houses I stopped, scanned the trees, and listened. I couldn't see or hear my crow ally, but I did notice a robin high in the tree on my left letting out a short, sharp "peak! peak! diddle diddle peak!" I crossed the next street at a low run and headed for the copse of sheltering trees where I have my sit spot. Sure enough, the crow was there, raising a righteous racket, and as I ran up I saw the hawk drop out of one of the spruces at the back of the lot and continue on up the hill.

My progress was slower; by the time I had jogged up and around the corner the crow had found a new station in a tall maple behind some townhouses. As I stood there craning my neck for a glimpse of our common quarry, a human friend happened to walk by and ask what I was doing, as well he might have. The conversation that followed was well worth shifting my attention away from the birds, but it meant that by the time I had wished my friend a good day they had moved out of earshot. I gave up the chase and went home to make some notes in my bird journal.

Crows can make good allies. I got started in birdwatching by following the hordes of crows that return from the landfill each day, about an hour before sunset, to roost by the thousands in Waterloo Park. As you might guess, these noisy multitudes are not exactly following natural baseline behaviour, so I've since moved on to a closer study of the songbirds in and around my sit spot in downtown Kitchener. I've been getting a lot of help with this from a book by Jon Young called What The Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World.

what-the-robin-knows-coverYoung is a lifelong student of bird language and tracking, and he distinguishes five categories of vocalizations common to all songbirds:
1) song, used by males to mark territorial boundaries and proclaim their fitness to potential mates;
2) male to male aggression, which occurs when those boundaries are transgressed;
3) companion calls, which keep pairs or families in verbal contact while feeding;
4) adolescent begging (translation: "food! now! food!"); and finally
5) alarms, which signal to anyone within earshot that all is not well in the neighbourhood.

I had the good fortune this morning of being visited at my sit spot by a pair of black-capped chickadees in a relaxed mood. Their song, a descending "DEE DEE," and their flocking call, "chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee," are well-known, but as this pair hopped casually from branch to branch just a few feet above my head, gleaning the branches for small insects, I overheard the gentle "pip. pip." of their companion calls. This brought me immense satisfaction. What it told me, in a backhanded compliment kind of way, was that I wasn't particularly worthy of their consideration. After weeks of regular visits to this couple's home, I had succeeded in becoming, so to speak, part of the furniture. On this occasion I'd been sitting still for nearly forty minutes.

Jon Young explains that while companion calls can be the most rewarding vocalizations to experience, alarms are the most complex, and carry the most nuances of meaning. You can tell, if you know your stuff, what kind of predator is coming through the forest by bird alarms alone. Returning to my earlier story of the hawk and the crow, I've been wondering just what that robin meant by "peak! peak! diddle diddle peak!" According to Young's useful online audio library, intended to accompany the book, this is a typical robin alarm, but not the one associated with an aerial predator. And why was the robin high in the tree rather than low down to escape the hawk? Was there something in this scene I was in too much of a hurry to notice? Or was the robin sounding the alarm because of me? I might never know, but these questions will guide me as I sit out in the woods listening for the robins. Any guesses or clues from my readers are welcome.

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As you may have guessed already, a central project of this blog will be telling stories. Having interesting information at hand, about bird language or magic spells or world events, is one thing, but being able to put it into a meaningful story is what makes mere data into something thinkable. Stories turn knowledge into understanding. Often our own experience is the story that opens us to new thoughts, as with the experiences I've related above. But we can also gain new understanding from the stories of others, which is of course one reason for retelling my experiences on this blog.

Even a story that's purely fictional (especially a story that's purely fictional, I think) can open us to new understanding, because new stories make new information thinkable; alternatively, they make old information thinkable in new ways. Without new stories to think with, all we can do is try to fit new information into old stories, whose plots may have worn thin with too many retellings, or which may have been intended for a different audience. What follows from stories poorly chosen to suit the data or experiences at hand is not understanding, but the illusion of understanding. And illusion, cleverly handled, is the bread and butter of dark wizards. Even worse, I've heard one wizard say, is knowing only one story, and therefore being able to think in only one way.

If this sounds like more magical mumbo-jumbo to you, fret not, for it's only a feckless apprentice's idle venture into literary theory. All I've been getting around to saying is that in the spirit of making new thoughts thinkable (and of Defence Against the Dark Arts!) I'm going to take a sharp turn into the land of story with next week's post, and see if I can't conjure up a tale to set your mental cogs clicking and whizzing with delight and, perhaps, dismay. All that and more on next week's A Wizard of Earth.

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