Among the leaves the small birds sing

Essays in Idleness By David Warren - - Everything Else
The London Yodeller

WARREN Beth Stewart A Peaceable Kingdom (white crowned sparrow) “In the spring, I have learnt, through the month of May, many million birds pass over Greater Parkdale in a single night, returning to their northern abodes”

My Chief Newfoundland Correspondent (I hadn’t mentioned the appointment yet: I hope he is not unduly alarmed) writes about prayer, among the birds. Or rather, he asked a question of my purple finches, who are at last back in force from wherever, exploiting the sunflower generosity of the High Doganate. He asked if they, or the other birds pray, as they seem to do in his neighbourhood of Saint John’s (where, I gather, he is a physical oceanographer).

The birds in his backyard conflate into song about one hour before sunrise, in the first light of the morning dusk.

A gentle sound, not the rough ‘caw’ of our crows, nor the frantic chirps of small nesting birds as they attempt to fill their noisy children. It would be pleasant to believe that they are thanking God for life.”

It is the same in Parkdale. I have often noticed the choir is preceded by a single voice, intoning the invitatory Psalm. And then the full gallery of songbirds, in all their species, sing Lauds from each his tiny loft. The sound is unmistakable: of joy in being alive.

My swallows are back, too, only recently from the Amazon, or somewhere I think in southern Venezuela where the Ante-Parkdale may be found in the northern winter. They seem not to tire from their twice-annual, heroic journeying; nor to have suffered from the inevitable collapse of the Venezuelan economy after the introduction of socialism there, where only the human beings despair. The birds are above it.

My hearing is not so fine that I can distinguish any chirping from them within the Lauds; I think they wait until just after, to fly out in their squadrons, and feast on the early morning bugs — nattering away to each other where they find the midge-clouds thickest.

Alas, since last fall, the municipal authorities have taken out a beautiful old iron bridge over the railway, the underside of which was among the swallows’ largest hotels. It was targeted as unnecessarily quaint and lovely, banked on one side into a natural shade garden; it will be replaced with something better engineered to express the vicious ugliness in the soul of contemporary man. I daresay the demolition men were cursing at all the old swallow nests. But my swallows, like my finches and my sparrows, will survive. They find other hotels, and do not even bother to plague the city switchboard with their complaints.

In the spring, I have learnt, through the month of May, many million birds pass over Greater Parkdale in a single night, returning to their northern abodes. Along the Lakeshore, just now, one may see the flocks of whimbrel, en route to Hudson’s Bay and the Keewatin. They wade, and poke about in the dirty sands, with their down-curved beaks; then, on seeing a man too close, alert their friends with a rippling whistle. I know they are feeding, but in a moment it seemed all their heads bowed together, as if in acknowledgement of the Holy Trinity. Then being noticed, they took fear and flew off. (I cannot say that I understand whimbrels. Approach a nest, I am told, and the parents will come at your face in a way that makes redwing blackbirds seem willing to compromise. But gathered in a mob they are meek and skittish. This is quite the opposite of the human propensities.)

Only, perhaps, a few hundred thousand among the songbirds have selected Inner Parkdale for their summer homes. Ovenbirds and juncos, warblers and thrushes, flickers and sapsuckers and chickadees, may be spotted in the quiet of the ravines; fox sparrows, song sparrows, house sparrows, chipping sparrows, lincolns, white-throats, savannahs, are to be counted among the “small brown jobs” of High Park and its vicinity; each a tiny squeezebox of music; enough to remind all those unstunted of the Joy of their Creator. I am no authority on this. I cannot tell if all the Liturgical Hours are observed. I have no confidence, either, in my powers of identification, for I am no birder. I deal only with the obvious. Without anything tantamount to human knowledge, they are praying for us.


Controversy continues to swirl around my habit of calling my finches “purple.” A consensus is emerging among semi-perfessional birders that they cannot be. Bird Dog, at Maggie’s Farm, is the latest to “call me” on this. Purple finches are piney-wood avians, he insists. Those must be common-garden house finches who address me from my balconata railing, here in inner-city Parkdale.

Perhaps I am naïve, but I take them at their word. They say they are purple finches, so that’s what I report. Besides, there could be legal issues. They might be “trans” purple finches. In which case, my calling them house finches could get me a visit from the Mounties, under our young Liberal government’s latest experiment in criminal law. One can now get two years in the slammer, up here, for failing to acknowledge any creature’s personal choice of identities.

It is possible I misheard them, however. Sometimes they speak a singular metallic weet, whose meaning is clear enough. But usually it is a “bubbly continuous warble” (Andy Bezener, Birds of Ontario) — resembling Hindi, but with no English nouns inserted to help one determine the subject. I thought they said, Carpodacus purpureus. Perhaps it was, Carpodacus mexicanus, instead. Definitely, Carpodacus, and not, Loxia, for they sure don’t look like crossbills to me.

And then there is the fact that they lack the (slightly vulgar) body streaks that I would expect to see on a house finch, whether male or female. And the lads seem to lack the brown hat. And the colouring on those males strikes me as a more graciously distributed matt raspberry; the red on a house finch would be more chesty and alarming and, you know: burgundy.

The ladies, especially, know how to dress. There is that ermine mottle on their undersides, and it seems to me, that delicious dusk cheek. And they are less saucy than one would expect of the (sometimes frankly shrewish) house finch dames; they are lady-like and classy. I would swear, though not necessarily in a court of law, that their tails are slightly notched, too. A visitor to the High Doganate said no, the tails are square, and besides, they can’t be purple finches. I told him purple finches have been recorded by the bird club in the woods of nearby High Park. He told me they stay there. They don’t do balconies. But this, I declared, is a distinguished balconata.

We all know the house finch is one of those “introduced” species, from the extreme Southwest, released in number by bird-dealers in New York City a century ago in anticipation of a police raid; that they took to urban life like many other questionable immigrants; and spread quickly from one town to another. That they displaced the native purple finches to the sticks, and have so pushed and shoved even the house sparrows (illegal immigrants of a previous generation), that we now have more than a billion of them, in dense congregations.

Did I say “illegal”? … Sorry. … The Eurasian house sparrows were imported in the 1850s to control the insects afflicting our cereal crops. But, ha! Turned out they were vegetarian — indeed trash vegetarians, who moved right into the slums. So that our melodious song sparrows felt obliged, street by street, to move elsewhere. These “Mexican” house finches have the same reputation. (Maybe Trump should have a go at them.)

My finches are not like that, at all. They are delicate, cultured birds who, as I say, can sing in Latin (as well as Hindi). They are not in the least aggressive. Well, sometimes they will note that the seed dish is empty — but softly, musically, regretfully. Surely they are finches of the “purple” class”.

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