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Four Notes of Praise

Photo by Carol Fassler.

I am stopped this morning by the sound of a bird song very loud, very close. Four notes, expressed, then a silence. Then four notes repeated. Tilting my head up, the sun full in my face, shielding my eyes with one hand, I search the branches above, but can’t find it of course. As usual, the interlocutor is invisible to a mere human, even though the leaves have not yet unfurled from the trees and nothing more than my own inability to see obscures it. From a distance, the same four notes echo.

What power! What boldness! Again, that loud song arrests me. I stand stock still with an urgency that surprises me, that I shouldn’t miss it. Just as when, at times, I am seized with an urgency to grab my flat, white stone into which is engraved the word “FAITH” and rub it hard with my thumb. Somebody gave that stone to me long ago; I thought nothing of it at the time.

Birds make short calls and create longer songs. Some have only a single song; some have five or more. The brown thrasher can have more than 2,000.

Like children, birds must learn to sing young. Their first vocals are generic, quiet “subsongs,” like a baby’s babbling. Fledglings instinctively recognize the song of their own species, memorize its basics, then begin to create their own versions.

Few animals learn vocals when they’re young by imitating their elders: dolphins; elephants; humans. Birds. Each individual bird has its own repertoire: variations on a theme.

Some scientists think there’s more to birdsong than territory and attracting mates. Ofer Tchernichovski, a neuro-ethologist who studies birdsong at Hunter College, witnessed a dying robin at a train station. It sang on and on, certainly not trying to attract a mate, but rather seeming to sing as if to comfort itself.

From above me, the loud refrain drops into my body like a stone dropping into a well. I don’t know what it means. I simply think of the times when, upon waking – the grey light filtering through the window, the thought rising with my breath that I might not be able to go on for another day – there is the sound of birds. The first to call through the gathering light; then the others echoing; then the rising cacophony. And thus I will be lifted: not by an idea, or thought, or understanding, but by that which leaves its glad print upon the air and then is gone.


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