The bird pictured in my previous post is not the mockingbird I heard during my first night in Rome. The bird below is a robin. It was one of more than a dozen robins flocking on a holly bush beneath my window at home in Hartsdale, NY. I had planted that bush when we moved into the house in 2002. A few years before that, we had adopted Liana when she was four, and our apartment at the time suddenly got smaller as she got bigger, so in time we bought the house, and I planted the holly.
It’s a prickly leafed bush, as we all know, but the bright red berries against the dark green leaves is a great sight to see, and reminds me of Christmas and, for some reason, children singing. But for years this holly bush would not produce berries. About five years ago, I noticed a few red spots, but barely enough worth counting. The following year brought more though still not enough to make the bush seem recognizable as a holly. But this year, well before Thanksgiving, the bush seemed on fire with red berries, and I brought some cuttings inside to decorate and impress my older daughter Emma, her husband Russell, and their 20 month old boy, our first grandson, John, who were flying in from Chicago for Christmas.
I’m sorry; were you expecting something about Rome?
So I was inordinately proud of my blazing holly bush; however, in the flurry and babble of my grandson running about the house, I barely gave notice to the holly cuttings. Somehow, young John’s presence captured our attention. He was the red-cheeked berry of the moment.
Then came the first of the snows in early January; a melt, then more snow, and more, with deep freeze temperatures creating a pile-up two feet deep. Everywhere. I’m not sure how birds survive the winter; I know our robins don’t fly south, and I suppose they always manage to find something to eat on the ground, when it is not covered with snow two feet deep, but weeks of snow coverage will change a bird’s situation, and disposition. So, long after Christmas, and only a day before leaving for Rome, I found a flock of truculent robins, maybe eighteen roosting in a nearby tree, dive bombing at my holly bush. They came singly and in groups of six, devouring my holly berries one berry at a time: plucked, then tossed back and swallowed whole. In less than an hour, the berries and birds were gone. And I am glad the beauty of that bush was put to such good use.
Thirty-six hours later, on a warm night in Rome, I was awakened by another bird. It was the distinctive random warble of a brassy Italian mockingbird. I’m not a “birder,” but I seem to know—or perhaps I made this up so long ago that I am now certain of its factuality—that mockingbirds have a seemingly infinite repertoire of five or eight note songs, and that they can go through 180 of them without repeating. (I guess some ornithologist simply gave up listening after song 180.) The bird’s strategy is to sound like every other bird imaginable so that his broadcasting of so many songs will ward off all other birds within earshot. It’s his way of claiming territory.
I know that Harper Lee’s narrator Scout tells us that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because all it does is sing sing sing. But maybe she had never been wakened on successive nights at 3 AM to the maddening sound of a mockingbird cheerfully blasting the neighborhood with his boombox rap. I am a light sleeper, and more than once has my serenity been disturbed, of a night, by a New York mockingbird. Believe me, it would not be such a sin to wring a couple mockingbird necks. As you can tell, I have differing views on different birds. Liana is terrified of birds, but that’s another matter.
As it happens, I also teach mockingbird behavior to my students when we read Walt Whitman’s great poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” This operatic work is about a man’s recollection of being a boy on a Long Island beach listening to a pair of mockingbirds sing love songs all night, until a storm kills one of the birds, and the remaining bird continues his song, although now the love song is a song of death, which harmonizes with the sound of the ocean waves: night, bird, waves, song—death. It is one of the most moving poems in Whitman’s vast repertoire of songs. And I will admit to softening my view of birds, though not of sin.
And now, having escaped America to live in Rome for a spell, I am awakened by a noisome mockingbird in the night whose song kept me tossing until 5:30 AM, sleepless and wondering about childhood, birds, berries, and death. Is this what Rome is about? I waited up the next night to hear him, but he did not return.