The call

In a poetry class with Highlights Foundation, I recently wrote an Edenic or Fall of Man/Woman poem in which I touched on the idea that animals once had free communication with humans. Maybe we once understood all the lyrics in birdsong. Maybe that’s why I have such a pang when the Carolina wren on my back deck sings, with its whole being, with what sounds like unbridled joy; it fills me with unspeakable longing for something I cannot name. Maybe this lost dialogue is why dogs’ loving eyes so pierce the human soul…begging the question of who’s the purer creature…

One morning this week I heard a sound that I haven’t heard in years. I hadn’t even realized it was missing: the distinctive call of Bobwhite quail. A quick online search told me that their numbers have diminished in my area. Surely some of this is due to habitat loss as more subdivisions are being built. As is often the case with one simple search, I now have more research to do…

And then one afternoon, pulling into my driveway, I saw four tiny brown birds running from the roadside to safety in the grass. A new covey of these quail, forging their life together. Got me thinking about how challenging it is to survive, being a ground bird, considering the neighbor’s prowling cat and any number of things in the snatches of surrounding woods… it is a line of thinking I can’t let myself follow very far. Leads me back to the poem, the idea of Eden, the true unity of all living things, before the loss of it all. Before the first bloodshed.

But today, I will simply savor the sound. And the living. And the message, as much as I can understand it.

Bob-white, bob-bob-white
onomatopoeic call
of little ground birds
skittering through the grasses
looking out for each other

Lead photo: Northern Bobwhite quail. Steve Maslowski/USFWS. CC BY

End photo: Northern Bobwhite. Don Faulkner. CC BY-SA

16 thoughts on “The call

  1. Fran,
    I love your explanation, the threads of a writer coursing through your moments of living, pondering, noticing. And your poem. I dont know if they live in my region, but I’ve not seen them. I wish I was better at knowing birdsong. I have a nice graphic with sound, but I forget. I know birders find great joy when they hear those symphonies. Skittering….a perfect word.

    Liked by 1 person

      This is the interactive graphic of birdsong. I live near Cornell University where they have the famous Sapsucker Woods which I hope to take my grandchildren to this summer. I am trying to play this often so I can identify what birds are out and about in the wee hours. I think we have mourning doves about and I am sure about chickadees and robins. My son’s house has way more birdsong, too.

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      • I love the interactive birdsong map and have enjoyed trying to identify their voices here where I live – we have so many types of birds and they “come alive” every morning. The wren is especially loud and buoyant; it truly sings a doxology. The house finches sound cheerful and more chattery. Mourning doves – they may have been the first, beside the Bobwhite and geese, that I learned to recognize as a child. Their cooing does sound like a lament. There’s really just something so spiritual about all of it – stirs the soul, doesn’t it?

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  2. I love your tuning with nature and ah! the word onomatopoeic. I need to tuck that one away. I grew up with Bobwhites in the woods nearby and remember well their distinct call.

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  3. What I love about your connection to Eden before the fall, bringing it to the ground birds, is this whole idea of TRUST. I mean…being a bird without the gift of flight, without much in the way of strength or speed. They’re just OUT THERE in this world. In a pre-fall world, there is no need to anticipate or fight danger, just trust that this world will be okay. And in the post-fall, there is the trust that they will work in support of one another. So much said with so little.

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    • Lainie, these quail ARE “just out there in this world” – I read where the Bobwhite lay anywhere from 7-28 eggs (!!) beginning in May and that nest success is estimated at around 28%, largely due to predation. This is one of those things that will sadden me deeply if I think on it too long (pulls hard on the heartstrings). And so yes: trust! These little ground-dwellers with astonishingly big voices band together and help one another (take note, Humans). Haven’t shared my Edenic pantoum yet, still thinking about possible revisions, but the brokenness of things (beginning with broken trust, perhaps!) is never far from my thoughts…and as always, thank you for yours!

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    • I heard Bobwhite all the time in summers at my grandparents’, Stacey. I don’t recall actually seeing them before! At first I thought the little birds by the road here in my neighborhood were fledglings of some kind. I wondered why they ran vs. flying – and then I realized. I’d heard the call a few days before and it made me stop to listen, as it’s been a long time. And what a startlingly loud call for such a little creature. May be my favorite example of onomatopoeia!

      Yes, the HF course is fascinating. Gail Carson Levine is amazing, as is Susan Bartoletti and my fellow participants. I have learned quite a bit and am really being stretched. Still revising the Edenic poem I referenced here, which happens to be a pantoum. I haven’t shared it anywhere else yet but am always thinking of how to strengthen it. All in all, I am deeply grateful for the March 2020 Spirit of the Challenge Prize with TWT! What a gift it is!


  4. Fran, I’m apparently allergic to your post. That explains the tightness in my throat and the slight blurring of my vision as I read about your Carolina wren and dogs’ loving eyes. The “red in tooth and claw” aspect of nature has always been difficult for me (yet I work with birds of prey), but nothing about it is harder than the way we as humans simply sweep away entire populations and communities with our quest for more. I’ve written before about a hardscrabble little patch of preserved land near my house; that was the last place I saw a covey of quail, and it’s been years. I hope to see them again, but that area is being developed further. We’ll see.

    Thank you for this post, and for your wonderful tanka. “Looking out for each other” is something I’ll ponder today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tim…this “allergy” to my post… thank you, truly. The birds of prey do what they do. We had a little rooster once (a gift from an enthusiast friend) which promptly got carried off by a predator. It’s a hard aspect of nature to face. Even so – there’s an undeniable, fierce beauty in those creatures. As we humans make progress “in our quest for more,” however…just how much are we losing? I think of it when I hear the wren and watch it from my window. It was a rare gift to see the Bobwhites – they are usually so secretive. It buoyed my spirit so, and somehow gives me hope. I know you understand!

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  5. From birds in the air and the trees, to your door, and now in the grass; even the sequence of your posts mimics the Edenic fall. (Thanks for the new vocabulary word, too–Edenic.) We are seeing birds previously unseen before–in our case, cedar waxwings, beautiful little perching things–and I worry that as we inch closer to post-pandemic “normal” that they will disappear from our view once again–a microcosmic example of losing our connection with Nature. A sobering thought today, Fran.


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