I came home one evening this spring to the rollicking song of a mockingbird in the trees outside my house. The song filled an empty space in me I’d forgotten existed, because it was the voice of a long lost friend I thought I’d never hear again. But he was finally back, or one of his progeny was here in his place, singing the same song that had filled my nights with inexpressible joy just a few years before.
It was a time I’ve come to call my mockingbird summer, a unique period in my hillside neighborhood in San Francisco. We’d always had mockingbirds here, but this one was something else. His song began late one spring afternoon and continued into the evening, just outside my window, through the dinner hour and on into the night. I opened my window wide before bed and stuck my head out into the darkness. That mockingbird just sang and sang, up and down the scale, sounding like a cat, then a squirrel, a chattering chipmunk, a warbler, a jay, an oriole. His repertoire was boundless and he continued singing as I drifted off to sleep. His music lightened my dreams and he was still at it, or at it again, when I awoke at dawn.
It was a virtuoso performance, one not to be repeated there or anywhere else, I thought, but that evening he started up again and continued his song well into the night just as before. After several consecutive nights of this irrepressible song I began to expect it, and indeed all summer it went on, every night, all night. He was singing as if this was all he was ever meant to do, as if his entire reason for being was wrapped up in his singing through the night, spreading joy into the dark, silent world.
That “nightingale” outside my window reminded me how much pleasure birds had given me throughout my life. When I was a boy of nine or ten I spent many thrilling mornings rising at dawn, grabbing my father’s binoculars, and racing off to the woods surrounding a marshy lake about a half mile from home. Etched in my memory are images of those pink mornings when the world was a-chatter, the shrubs busy with wrens and juncos, the trees alive with woodpeckers and thrushes and robins, the lake swarming with mallards and coots, and terns swooping above.
I can still see the sunny morning in a nearby park when I lay on my belly, propped on elbows, binoculars trained on a flicker hammering an oak tree so close the bird filled the entire frame, his colors radiant in the sunshine. I can see the black and white flash of a red-headed woodpecker flying from tree to tree. I can hear the morning call of a meadowlark on a wooden fence, see the black V on the yellow breast as brilliant as it appeared in my Peterson field guide. I remember dusty ballfields where I saw small, unremarkable birds that on closer inspection had two tiny rabbit ears, a feature that seemed so exotic I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Peterson showed that they were horned larks, a species I didn’t know existed and wouldn’t have believed if I had.
In those childhood years birds took me into the woods, out to the meadows, onto the margins of lakes and swamps. By drawing me into the outdoors they gave me a precious gift—an appreciation of nature—and drew from me a certain kind of love. Love for them, for their surroundings, for the wide world they and I inhabited.
Later in life, when I’d moved to San Francisco and found a house on the side of a hill surrounded by gardens with a broad window looking out upon the bay, I one day heard a familiar clicking that seemed louder than normal. There to my surprise was a hummingbird who had flown in a side window and was futilely trying to escape out the picture window. By the time I arrived to usher him out he had expired on the sill. I couldn’t believe he had died so suddenly and I leaned close to look for signs of life. His ruby throat gleamed, his iridescent green back shimmered, but his eye seemed a tiny black orb with no light whatsoever. He was still as the sill on which he lay. Gingerly I picked him up and laid him in the palm of my hand. He was so light he seemed weightless. It was like holding a ray of sunshine, a piece of heaven so pristine it seemed a link to all of the natural world. I suddenly saw myself as a bundle of atoms just like this still hummingbird in my hand, part of this grand and incomprehensible world, but a being still energized by life force, which seemed to have abandoned this poor bird.
Not knowing what to do, I moved toward the open window and carefully laid him on the outside sill, hoping that by some miracle he would revive. My fingers had barely released their touch when he leaped into the air, hovered for a second looking at me, and darted off into the trees, leaving me awed, the recipient of a divine vision.
Ever since, I’ve thought of that incident as a miracle, a visitation from a supernatural spirit to tell me to pay attention, to look beyond my daily human concerns and to appreciate my connection to the world. In this way that hummingbird and his cousins have kept me grounded, helping me reach a fuller understanding of my place on the planet. I am part of the web, as we all are, whether we like it or not, and nothing we do in our ambitious human lives can change that. When a chickadee flits within a few feet and turns her head, when a robin gives us a sideways glance, they’re telling us we’re just like them, neither more nor less, and in important ways their welfare is our welfare.
Over the years, when I’ve been talking with my mother on the phone from Minnesota we’ve always been interrupted by news of the birds outside her window. I can feel the sheer joy in her voice as she exclaims that a cardinal has appeared at the feeder, brilliant red against the snow. The cardinals are a sign of resilience in the harsh winter, a reminder that the frozen mantle over the earth can be endured. In the spring, when the icy patches are stubbornly fending off their inevitable melting, the sight of a robin is enough to raise her voice an octave. The robin means springtime, the receding of winter’s hold on the land and the breaking open of a world of possibility and redemption.
Like the mockingbird who sang all night, every night as if his life depended on it, birds have given me the gift of life, nothing less. They have carried a torch to light the path, imploring me to recognize my place in the natural order, and not to miss a thing because it will all be gone so fast. The white-crowned sparrow singing in the morning and at dusk is calling not just to his mate but to me, telling me to take note of the blooming roses, the rich light of sunset washing across the hills.
About Larry Habegger:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.