Salute to a Brown Bird



Below is the prelude to Raymond Deck’s Pageant in the Sky (1941) as it appeared in The Bird Watcher’s Anthology (compiled by Roger Tory Peterson, 1957). Even though it’s not very long (I read it while riding the bus home from the airport) it is one of my favorite writings in the whole book. I could not find this piece anywhere online so I have reproduced it here in digital text for anybody who might be interested in reading it. (YES — this means I hand-typed it. Every word! That’s got to be proof it’s worth reading…)

Roger Tory Peterson’s introduction:

Every bird that flies to the West Indies, to Mexico, or to South America and back, is made of championship stuff. There are no unfit birds. The inept are weeded out; nature’s realistic bookkeeping is concerned only with percentages — the strong, successful percentages. It seems tragic when one of these small fluters completes the long flight only to dash its life out on something as prosaic as a wire or a window. It is as though an intrepid explorer, on his return from far adventures, slipped on the stairs of his own home or killed himself while cleaning his rifle. Raymond Deck himself died in one of these home accidents shortly after the publication of his book Pagaent in the Sky. “Salute to a Brown Bird” is the prelude to this book on the modern sport of birdwatching.

“Salute to a Brown Bird,” by Raymond Deck

Jean and I were sitting quietly in a wood the first time the child heard a northern Veery wing. We already had marked a dozen bird songs, I remember, for all New England was flooded with birds on that morning in May. Now a Grosbeak with a red escutcheon on its breast was brightening the blue sky with cheery roundelays. Ovenbirds, drunk with spring, fluttered high above the woodland roof to shower the earth with silky song. And catbirds chanted. Somewhere behind us a Yellowthroat whistled of witchery!

Then the Veery sang, and a hush seemed to fall on the land like the still in a church, for the song of that little brown bird is an otherworldly thing. Like the chiming of golden bells the song wavered through the trees. It swelled from a whisper into a frosty, ringing thing, then vanished among the black trunks. I cannot tell you where the soloist hid to sound that beautiful cool anthem, for the Veery, like the Mockingbird and a handful of other gifted singers, is an able ventriloquist. I cannot even describe the song so that you would recognize it.

Maybe Jean can, though.

“It sounds,” Jean said,” like spirals of white gold.”

Yes, if she really wanted, I answered her question, perhaps we could manage a look at a Veery or two. Not more than a glimpse, though, for the bird is shy and furtive. It never will sit unafraid on a limb and let you watch it at its singing the way its cousin the Wood Thrush will. Softly, softly, we would have to walk in damp ferny places to catch a glimpse of a Veery.

All we could hope to see then would be the whisking flight of a dusky brown bird smaller than a Robin. It would flit out of a spicebush maybe, or up from a mossy boulder by the creek. There would be a flash of wings which always looked like silver in the shadows where brown Thrushes dwell; and a strange throaty churrp of an alarm. That was all we could expect for a log of searching. But Jean wanted to see the bird that sang white gold spirals so we backed the car into a little woods-road and struck off among the trees.

We tramped around for a long time. We heard Towhees sing; and Orioles, and a host of jeweled Warblers. In the trunk of a dead silver birch we found the brood of a Chickadee pair. But we had no glimpse of the bird that strikes chimes, and we heard no Veery sing.

I told the child, I remember, that if these birds were not uncannily timid perhaps there would be no golden-bell songs for people to hear. For Veeries, like most other birds, fly south every fall; only they go farther than most, and consequently face more dangers. Jean remembered flocks of Bluebirds in southern peach orchards on mid-winter days. She knew that many birds, like them, journey five or six hundred miles every fall to find sanctuary from northern blizzards.

But Veeries, I knew well, fly on and on over Dixie to wilderness places.

“Just before your second birthday, Jean,” I said as we trudged along, “I left on an expedition…”

Then, oddly, the whole scene changed, though I went on talking to my daughter. The oaks and birches vanished. Great purple orchids shimmered above me on the branches of kapok trees. Parrots and red macaw streamed through the sky. And I was standing with my Indian boy on Christmas Day, in the ageless, beautiful forest that is Brazil. There were birds all about, as there are in the Maytime woods at home, only more birds and brighter ones. There were Tanagers, blue, yellow and crimson; big fluffy Trogons gayer than the bravest canvas in the world; and Parrakeets which fairly glittered as they flew chattering through the trees.

But I had no eyes for these tropic-hued dandies, for I had spied a dusky Thrush on the jungle floor. This was not the plump gray bird which called oomp, in the jungle at twilight in such sonorous tones that I called it the Organ Thrush. It was no one of the dozen other native Thrushes which filled the air with rich music at dawn and dusk. The bird that I saw beside the Amazon on that blazing Christmas Day was a Veery — perhaps from New England.

No doubt it will seem silly to you I did not shoot the thing so that its stuffed skin might be resting today in a museum case. But all that I did was to say “humph,” which to the Indian meant that this bird was too commonplace to kill. But to me it meant: “You will see Connecticut again long before I will, even if you do have to fly by night over leagues of steamy jungle, even if you must cross five hundred miles of naked ocean by yourself. I know there are a hundred snakes and ocelots here, a hundred Hawks and foxes to the north, which will try to kill you, but you will manage to get through all right because you are so uncannily wary.

“When you get back to the land where cool breezes blow, where Old Glory waves in majesty against the sky,…” the humph, went on to mean, “… perhaps you will drop down briefly for me in a certain ferny wood. A strain from those rolling golden bells of yours should say to Jean and her mother, ‘All is well.'” 

Jean liked the idea of any bird’s being strong and brave enough to fly thousands of miles to tropical jungles and back. She said that it must be a great relief to Veeries to know, now that May was here, that their worst dangers were over — until the return journey started in August, anyhow. She was sure they all felt very happy to be safely back of they would not sing as beautifully as they did. Jean hoped she would hear a Veery sing again. And especially she wished she could see what these birds looked like, that had faced so many perils and come through.

We had sat down in a maple glade as we discussed these things. It was a lovely place, with sunlight sifting through baby leaves in the gayest manner imaginable. Birds were singing all around. Then the sky clouded over of a sudden, as must happen sometimes, even in North America in May. The ostrich-ferns and other tender green things about became almost luminous when that happened, just as they always do. Ground-Robins left off calling twee-cher-lee! A Wren, perched so eloquently close to a hollow stump, quit his rollicking serenade.

Then the Veeries sang with abandon in the false dusk, as they do in the half-light of dawn and coming night. They had been everywhere about us all the time. Like the chiming of bells or the gentle sobs of organs — I never have decided which — their fairy spirals floated through the air. It is an exalting thing to hear a dozen Thrushes sing in chorus! This experience was such that even after the sun shone out again, and the last whorl of song trailed off among the trees, Jean did not think of tracking down one song to see the singer.

“Just think,” was all she said, “every one of those birds has flown clear to South America and back! I’m glad they are so shy and careful!”

We wandered back to the car soon after that. We were late for dinner already. Jean was a few paces ahead of me when we reached the little woods-road. She gave a start, I thought, as she put her foot on the running-board and turned to wait for me.

“Look daddy,” she said, and pointed to the ground.

A dusky brown bird the size of a Wood Thrush was lying there. It was quite dead though its body was still warm. Jean said she was very sorry, and I was sorry too, that after a Veery had lived all winter in primeval jungles it should have been killed by flying against the window of a car parked in Connecticut in May.


One thought on “Salute to a Brown Bird

  1. Ornithology Skinning Lab | furgots

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