Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Starlings Of Warsaw

About ten years ago, my small Hoosier town was nearly taken over by huge flocks of blackbirds. Watching those flocks fly into town was amazing. The collective flight of blackbirds is like -- remember those kid's toys -- you draw pictures with metal filings using a magnet? The flocks change directions so quickly and collectively that they look positively swarm-like. I wonder what'd happen if the lead blackbird had a turn signal go out on him?

Every evening from late August 'til late October all the trees in our town came to life with millions of 'em. They'd swarm in from the fields surrounding the town, settle into the trees and chatter for hours -- like school kids at a slumber party -- until they finally fell asleep.

Back in those years I lived in a house in an older section of town. All my neighbors were in their 80's. It was like being surrounded by grandparents -- and nobody watches out for you like grandparents. Through their mostly drawn shades they’d keep a watchful eye out for us. And, worried hens that they were, regularly they’d bring us baked goods. If we seemed to be working overtime with the pottery, sure enough, there'd be a rap on the door and a pot of chili, maybe some homemade bread would be there on our back stoop. We all gardened our small back yards-- but they canned their harvest -- and my wife and I reaped the benefits. Those were good years.

Next door lived a true country renaissance woman. Lacy was an energetic eighty-something (she carefully did not tell us exactly HOW 80-something) who told us stories of her rural Indiana life – a life that included the fact that she had given birth to her three kids at home. She had some pretty gruesome tales of home medicine – like stitching cuts on herself and kids. No anesthesia. Yikes).

Lacy was funny. I remember her getting almost too tickled to talk as she once recounted to me how, all summer long on her daily walks she would stop by a neighbor's garden and weave any new growth of a squash vine so that it trailed its way up the garden fence. The pay-off was in her actually getting to hear that neighbor explain the wonders of nature to his five-year-old son. “See Danny, how God makes the plant know how to vine its way up the fence so the squash don’t lay on the dirt?”

But boy, Lacy hated those blackbirds. Most of the older folks did. They feared ‘em as a potential plague carrier. In Lacy’s back yard were two enormous Ash trees. Every evening those trees would fill with blackbirds – so many and so loud you could barely talk over the bird’s chatter if you were standing under them. I was in the kitchen one such evening when I heard Lacy out on her driveway clapping her hands and trying to shoo them off.

I went down to my basement and, with a 1X4 and a flap of rubber, I made Lacy a very loud clapper. I made it so you could hold it in your hand (I band-sawed out a handle) and with a casting motion, clap one piece of 1X4 against the other piece hinged to it with the rubber.

I proudly took it over to her the next day. As evening came on, we gave it a try and, sure enough, the birds loudly exited – a thousand wings beating retreat.

But the next day, though they fled again, they circled and came back. Pretty soon we would use the clapper and they would barely stir -- maybe a few birdcalls twittered from the lower branches and “telephoned” their way up, informing the upper branch birds that it’s safe to just stay put.

Within a week I was taking a 7 foot 1X8, standing with one foot on one end, flexing the length of the board with as much potential energy as I could possibly muster out of that bent lumber – then letting go with full force against the pavement of the alley between our houses. The BANG!!! Was enormous, and the birds fled. But again…

…they came back.

It took me until way into the fall before I finally began to suspect that I was actually becoming the entertainment that was keeping thousands of blackbirds staying in our northern town when nature and the oncoming cold weather should have long-since moved them on. I imagined them there – thousands of blackbirds – brown-bagging the popcorn in from the fields – perched up on the branches like so many tiered theater seats…

…watching and laughing themselves silly at the crazy guy down below making the big noises with the sticks.

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