By Keith Michael
We’re bumping up and down on that end-of-spring seesaw when weather forecasts careen between a balmy 60 degrees with blue sky one day to below freezing with a nor’easter and wintry mix pending the next. Deciding how many layers to put on or take off is a cardio-sport.
On days like this, Millie, in her persnickety corgi-ishness (or simply Millie-ishness), prefers to sniff the air at the front door and turn tail (if she had a tail) to wait it out in a sunny patch on the floor. Inside. Lady’s choice.
Maybe leaf buds on the trees are already swelling. Or maybe they’re not. I might be making it up. The calendar says spring is around the corner but the freezing wind today is a master of deception. After a few rafts of ice from up north drifted down the river several weeks ago, the winter-that-never-was seemed on the verge of drifting by as well. But then the polar vortex swirled through. We’re wrapping our scarves a little tighter this month.
The only hint of spring in the neighborhood that I’ve noted for certain is the arrival of House Finches with their rollicky songs rolling down from lofty perches. Where they go during the colder months, I don’t know. Chimneys, cornices, roof-garden treetops—all are suitable venues for these pink filibusters declaiming their cheerful, ardent tunes. For a wintry description of a House Finch, think of a single scoop of raspberry sorbet in a waffle cone, and the sweet, sweet song is the candied cherry dripping off the top.
Every time I recognize a bird song (which is primarily how I locate a bird on the street), I imagine another bird of its kind hearing that song as well. I then imagine how dimensionally different it must sound to that other bird—all the nuance, innuendo, and gossip that I can’t begin to fathom. Translated into Millie’s comparably discerning olfactory terms: What is the infinite cornucopia of aromas that she detects during every step upon street cobblestones, which, for me, is just one more moment noticing how cold I am?
In the 1940s, the House Finch, a West Coast native, was sold illegally on the East Coast as a caged bird, called a “Hollywood Finch,” for its glorious song. To avoid prosecution, owners and traffickers later released the birds, and the House Finches acclimated very well to the Eastern Seaboard. Voilà: Sweet spring songs in the West Village!
I can’t blame it on Millie this time that it’s time to move on out of the cold. She’s already at home taking a mid-winter’s nap. “Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, it’s off to work I go.”
It seems that every House Finch is singing the same top-of-the-charts “House Finch” single that has been a solid-gold favorite of their “hit parade” during every spring season that I’ve been tuned in. Has the cadence and melodic lilt of their tune really not altered spring after spring, decade after decade, century after century?
Contrariwise to birds, people seem obsessed with changing fashion, not only now but through the eons. What is the latest definition of hip? What is cool? What is hot? What is groovy? That electric zing from being au courant seems to make us more attractive to other people. Are birds really living in such a perpetual “now” that there is no sense of “modern” or “old-fashioned”? Or does each infinitesimal shift in their evolutionary code, which we can’t decipher, cause a feather-fluttering quickening of the heart from bird to bird every spring? Did seventeenth-century House Finches in their native California (before it was named California) sing the same songs they do now? Was there a different melodic motif, harmonic progression, or “baroque” phrasing? Would contemporary House Finches recognize the serenades of their forebears? Would we recognize the crooning accents of our ancestors from a half-century ago?
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs, and visit his Instagram @newyorkcitywild for photos from around NYC.