The Songs of
Wild Birds

Lang Elliott
(Houghton Mifflin)
Sixty songbirds are included here, with full color pictures and a CD of field recordings. It should be a natural for those of us who are fanatics for bird-song (or, as the author offers, more correctly, "calls").

But these guys are so ugly. Maybe it's because when you see a thrush or a puffin or a Red-Eyed Vireo with its beak agape, you are thinking you should be putting a tick or some other wriggly thing in there. The American Robin comes complete with worm.

I mean to each his own, but when you think about it, the diet of the Pileated Woodpecker or the Ovenbird, much less the Common Loon is nothing you'd want to prepare in your own kitchen: banana worms, grubs, gnats, millipedes, fishmoths, caddisflies, earwigs, thrips, mealworms, and, in the case of the Great Horned Owl, phew, skunk. Can you imagine trying to make lunch out of those things that either stink up the place, wriggle around underfoot, or buzz in your ears, around your eyes and up your nose?

Some of these birdbrains are more than homely; they are downright scruffy. The Common Nighthawk looks like your downtown Broadway panhandler. The Whip-poor-will is the guy next door who's always trying to peek in your bedroom window. A Virginia Rail could be that woman in your office who is rattling on nonstop about her kids, her husband, her mother, her mother-in-law, the office manager, and --- when you are not there, they say --- you.

The Atlantic Puffin looks like you in the mirror after last night's housewarming party where you wowed them with your George Bush imitations. The Pied-billed Grebe: the woman in front of you at the check-out stand in the Piggly-Wiggly who brings in seventy-three cut-out coupons so that her hot-dogs and chips and ice-cream and popcorn only cost 83 cents. The skunk-eatin' Great horned Owl? Why it's the judge asking why you had all those funny-looking plants growing in your bathtub. And who was the booby who ratted on you?

Finally, there are the songs. They sound like your normal birdsong (or call) on the disc, but when Elliott writes them out, you wonder if we are on the same mountaintop. Purdy-purdy or what-cheer (Northern Cardinal); Tea-cher, tea-cher (Ovenbird); Tut-tut, eee-o-lay-o-leeeeeee (Wood Thrush); and Pi-zeet, scee, pee, growl, nyerk, tsuck (the Carolina Wren). The Blue Jay? Jee-arr. Or Twirl-erl. Or, Tweedle. Tweedle? That's what it says right there on page 23.

I say Nertz. Or, better, Nyer, tsuck.

--- Richard Saturday
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