There are two “sound shifts” that herald spring in Valier. One is the soft surf of newly emerged leaves, which is still weeks in the future. The other is the much earlier birdsongs. This year the first bird song (if you can call it that) I was aware of was on a fog-bound morning walking to the post office when I heard a forlorn single honk from a Canada goose, flying so low that it was a good thing most of the houses here are only one story tall. I figured it was just a scout on reconnoitre from Great Falls where some geese winter over.
But then my correspondent Paul said that on his country property in Idaho there were definitely geese — the only trouble was that the water was still frozen so they were out there jumping up and down in unison to break the ice open. (For you city folks, that’s a joke.) A few days later pairs and family groups were flying through Valier. And a little later than that, the high skeins were traveling through with their high eerie bugling. Funny how comical honking is when it’s up close but how musical when it’s coming down from far away.
I have doves living in one of my blue spruces. They are a busy and amorous bunch, careless of their eggs and defiant of the town owl, and I’m unclear whether they are there over winter or not. Their incessant coo-roo is meant to be romantic, I’m sure, but it can get wearing. Maybe that’s because I rarely actually SEE them, unless one comes out onto the bare cottonwood branches to take a little break from the boudoir or is on the ground to load its gizzard with gravel. They clearly don’t eat the same grain as the rock pigeons around the grain bins. The latter have simply disappeared. I suspect they’ve been poisoned — Valier likes poison and has the high cancer rates to show for it. The gulls are much fewer than usual as well, though this year the water is high enough that their nests on the island in Lake Francis are protected from ATV assault. I never see magpies in town, but also fewer in the countryside. It’s worrying.
I’m appreciative of the brisk rattle of the little woodpeckers who work on that cottonwood tree all winter, probing the crevices of the rough bark. It’s a silver cottonwood which I dearly love and I’m happy to have it tended, so I was UNhappy when Squibbie, my fat tortoiseshell cat, managed to catch one and bring it into the kitchen through the cat flap. I heard it hit the glass of the picture window, knocking itself “cuckoo” (technical ornithological term) enough that it was still so I could take it in two hands and carry it back out to the tree, where it seemed to recover and proceed with its work.
Cats may be the reason there are far fewer birds this spring. Concern about the number of stray cats is increasing and the deputy and I have consulted about measures to take, like securing old warehouses and other refuges and buying a few live-traps for the town to use regularly. I would be pretty upset if my own cats were killed or removed, so I don’t like the idea of poison, and a town is no place to be shooting, but there are plenty of people here who despise cats as vermin. Oddly, they feel the same way about chickens. Valier has been echoing Great Falls’ chicken wars in which high income people want to keep a few hens for pets and low income people regard them as the first steps towards the total degradation of the one civilized place they have ever lived. “I fed chickens on the farm, I know chickens, I HATE chickens!” is the cry.
Early in the spring a small eager woman at the post office told me about her hardy apple tree, which hangs onto its fruit over the winter. Attracted by an unfamiliar sound, she looked out the window to see her tree swarming with robins gobbling up the shriveled apples. I didn’t see it myself, but the mental image had me wishing I were an artist. I’m hearing media stories about robins being much fewer this year and singing at night because around cities the noise level is too high for them to communicate with possible helpmates for nest building and (ahem) the small ceremonies that produce eggs.
When the fields finally begin to clear and it’s warm enough to drive around a bit with my elbow out the pickup window, I listen for the first meadowlark which, to my heart, has a bird song approaching the sacramental, though the house finch is a close second. Meadowlark song is near being pronounced words and they say different things in different places. The first ones I deciphered said, “Would you like to go up in my swing?” A story I read claimed they said, “I love fresh fruit!” This year they are quiet, but that may be because that the empty space in the middle of town where they normally live is currently the scene of construction for our second water tank.
Normally there is a house finch family that lives in the trees in front of the Baptist church next door, but I haven’t heard them this year. I’ve heard other house finches in town and dearly love their twisting shining arias which are the same here as they were in Portland when I was growing up and they lived in the walnut trees across the street. I’m not even hearing the alarm sounds from them and the robins, which is beeping like a big piece of equipment backing up. Robin warnings are similar.
The most mysterious and rare song in Valier is one I was used to in the forests of Oregon: the hermit thrush. Sound is different among big mossy trees but I still recognize the notes. The most typical summer song on the prairie, at least near any small stream or barrow pit puddle is the “breeeeee” of red-winged blackbirds.
It occurred to me that there must be many bird songs online and I began to listen to them, but had to stop because Squibbie woke up from her morning nap and began trying to get inside my computer. A few owl hoots put her back on her tail. As a kitten she was nearly carried off by that town owl. I came out just in time. She hasn’t forgotten.