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Who Are You, Redbird?


Redbird, oh redbird what makes you sit and sing?
“I’m just perched here mouthing off, welcoming the Spring.”

The dawn chorus of the birds in Spring is an amazing medley of whistles, warbles, twitters, and chirps–songs of multitudes of birds greeting the new day. As the world turns from west to east the dawn moves from east to west, and the morning bird chorus moves with the dawn, so every day the earth is encircled with song.

Early one Spring morning I watched a cardinal perched in a redbud tree right outside my window. His bright red breast was puffed out. His cheerful sounding song was loud and clear–a bold voice in the chorus. It was almost like he was speaking English, “What-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer, chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp.”

Who are you redbird, sitting on a limb,
A long lost loved one, or dear departed friend?

Some people say a deceased loved one sometimes comes back as a redbird, i.e. a cardinal. They say seeing a cardinal is a sign that the spirit of the departed loved one is near. Here’s a couple of verses from the song “Who Are You Redbird“ recorded by bluegrass musicians Buddy Melton and Milan Miller. A subtitle might be “bluegrass boys contemplate reincarnation.”

Who are you redbird, sitting on a limb,
A long lost loved one, or dear departed friend?
You keep coming back to see me, every now and then,
Who are you redbird, sitting on a limb?

Sometimes when I’m feeling blue and lonely
Skies are gray and I’m running out of rope,
I see you in the backyard checking on me
And hear you sing a simple song of hope.

The cardinal’s song really is a song of hope. It’s actually a kind of an advertisement. He’s trying to attract a mate. His bright red breast is stuck out. He’s leaning back belting out his vigor, vitality and virility, advertizing his sexual readiness. (We’ve all met guys like that.)

Redbird oh redbird what makes you sing this song?
“I’m gonna find the girl of my dreams, I hope it won’t take long.”

But that’s not all there is to this cheery song; there’s more to it than that. The plot thickens! After singing a few verses of the song the cardinal turned and flew straight at the window and smashed up against the glass.

This wasn’t the accidental collision that often kills birds. This was different. This cardinal was braced for impact. And he continued flinging himself against the window again and again.  And then he went back to his original perch and continued his cheerful sounding song, “What-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer, chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp.” Then he resumed smashing himself against the window over and over. This went on for several hours a day for most of the summer.

Of course he can’t see through the window. All he sees is his own reflection in the glass, but he can’t recognize it as a reflection of himself. He thinks his own reflection is an enemy–an invader in his territory and he is determined to expel this intruder by any means, including violence. As I listen to this instinct-bound critter smashing himself against his own reflection in the window, I think about nature being full of lessons. There must be metaphorical lessons there for us humans. I have been pondering and reflecting on this question and asking various thoughtful people what these lessons might be.

I was talking to an academic, philosophical friend. I asked, “Is this testosterone poisoning?”  She said, “The issue is much less about testosterone than the evolution of our own identities. This cardinal has an identity problem.  He can’t recognize his reflection as himself. He’s trapped in dualistic thinking, (Me, not me. Me, not me…) and he doesn’t know how to get out of it. This instinct-bound cardinal hurling himself into the window is a lesson about the suffering that ensues from lack of self-knowledge.”

There’s a lesson: Lack of self-knowledge has consequences. Know yourself!

Redbird oh redbird what makes your face so black?
“I been hittin’ that window so durn long, lucky it don’t crack.”

My neighbor said, “Cover the window with a piece of cardboard or a tarp or something.”

I said, “The cardinal would just move to another window. Eventually I would have all the windows boarded up. I would be living in the dark and the cardinal would probably move to the car’s window or one of the side-view mirrors.”

Male cardinal bird sitting on a side mirror on a car

In life there’s always more windows and mirrors…and lessons. A window is there to give us a view into another world but the window becomes a mirror for the cardinal and the cardinal, like many of us, only sees himself. In our lives there are lots of mirrors. In some ways everyone we meet is a mirror, reflecting back to us who we are. If all our mirrors were covered we might not even know who we are!   

According to Zen Buddhist teachings, the mirror is without ego and mind. A mirror receives and reflects back what isthere, nothing more and nothing less. Everything is revealed as it really is. So the cardinal is revealed not only as a vibrant, beautiful, brilliant red bird in the mirror–it’s also revealed to be an intolerant, violent, territorial  being. We humans are also known to have intolerant, violent, and territorial tendencies like the cardinal, but like the cardinal, we are also vibrant, brilliant and beautiful in many ways. 

Buddhist masters also point out the mirror is not self-conscious. Neither is the cardinal, and that’s a big problem!

Magic mirror, won’t you tell me please
Do I see myself in everyone I meet?
Magic mirror if we only could
Try to see ourselves as others would.
– Leon Russell

What about the singing? This cardinal pauses in the middle of this battle with a fierce, evenly-matched adversary, to sing? What is that all about?

The singing, along with being a courtship song of hope, (Come on, sweetheart!) is also a way of defining and defending territory. This is true with most bird songs.

Illustration of a Carolina Wren

A birdsong expert who’d spent years studying the songs of the Carolina wren told me that when a Carolina wren sings, any male wren in an adjoining territory within hearing distance is instinct bound to stop what he is doing and answer. So, if one wren has a better territory, or a better physiology, and can finish his feeding, nest building and courtship activities sooner, he can begin singing and literally (melodically) drive other wrens out of their own territories. After telling me this, that ornithologist kept shaking his head morosely and repeating “I wouldn’t want to be a wren…” And all we humans hear is the sweet song of the birds. 

A classicist told me this is reminiscent of Plato’s “Analogy of the Cave”, which is a commentary on society in general. In this analogy there are three prisoners who have been chained since birth in a cave, and they are secured in such a way that they can only look in one direction–at the back wall of the cave. Behind them is a fire in the opening of the cave and there is a procession of people and animals passing between the prisoners and the light. All the prisoners can see are the shadows cast on the wall, and to the prisoners these shadows are reality. When one of the prisoners escapes, goes out into the world, sees what the world is really like, comes back and tries to tell his companions what he saw, they don’t believe him. Plato was trying to say that what we perceive is not always the only reality–the only truth.

The cardinal perceives a rival when it’s only a reflection of himself. And just like the cardinal, what we humans perceive as reality might actually be a reflection of ourselves or a mere shadow of what’s really there.

Although Plato wrote it more than 2000 years ago, this analogy can remind us modern humans, as we spend countless hours fixated on our smart phones, TVs, and computer screens, that those images on the screens, like the shadows on the cave wall, can become our reality when they are really only shadows. They may be full color, ultra high definition, digital images, but they’re still only shadows–and this ancient analogy of the cave reminds us that we would do well, now and then, to look up from our screens, turn around and gaze out at the real world.

Computer geek, computer geek, what makes your eyes so red?
“Been staring at that screen so durn long it’s messin up my head”

My psychotherapist friend says it sounds like the cardinal has issues with projection. Psychologists use the term projection to describe how we humans often see and project our own flaws onto others — we tend to see our own undesirable traits in other people.

Can’t you see that cardinal looking at his own reflection and saying, “Why you bright red, xenophobic, puffed-up, feather-breasted, crimson-crested, bird-brained, black-faced, thick-beaked son of a bird, What is it about ‘What-cheer, what-cheer,chirp-chirp-chirp’ that you don’t understand?” (smash, smash, smash!!!) 

Redbird oh redbird what makes your head so red?
“I been hitting that window so durn long, lucky I ain’t dead.”

An Update

In response to my article above, I got this interesting note from But Kornegay:

Thanks for sending the Redbird blog, with all the lessons to be read into and/or taken out of it. We had a cardinal here one time like the one you describe smashing into the window daily all summer. It would hit so hard right next to where I was sitting in my study that it’d startle me. I named him Tarzan. That bird hit the window so hard and so often that the window became covered in bird snot. One day, after months of this, with relief, I found him lying in the grass, dead. I think it had scrambled his brains. Below is a photo I took of the damn (or was it damned?) thing before his demise. So, that song lyric in your blog could be written…

“I been hitting that window so durn long, finally I am dead.”

Photo of a cardinal bird flying against a window taken from insideThis year we have something very odd going on. It’s the female who sings and fights her reflection in the window! I’m not kidding. The male seems to be emasculated. (Or maybe he’s gotten smarter than his predecessor.) He’s content to perch and preen and get something to eat–let her take care of the territory and all that stuff. I’ve named the female Amazon. Warped feminism has even infected the birds.

You mention Plato, and by chance I’ve been reading some of his Dialogues this spring. In the analogy of the cave, the reflections on the wall are all the things of this earth, unreal, mere changing shadows of reality and truth. Only when a person becomes philosophic and turns towards the light through hard and disciplined thought and purity of heart does he begin to see the eternal, unchanging ideas, the form of the good.

(Thanks to Emily Lutken for the wren illustration, Todd Elliott for the original photos, and Burt Kornegay for his comments and photo of Tarzan.)

For more literature, lore, stories, and songs celebrating the natural world check out my web store.

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The Wren and The Hornets

Illustration of a hornets nest with a Carolina WrenA Variation on the Birds and the Bees

We’ve always been fascinated by those large, gray bald-faced hornets’ nests. If we can find one within reach, we’ll wait until after a few hard freezes, then cut the branch with the nest and put it in the rafters of our open porch. At that time of year there never are any live hornets left in the nest. At the end of the season they all die except for the mated females who will be next year’s queens. They fly off and hibernate in cracks or crevices. In Spring each female starts from scratch building a new nest. To build their paper nests they collect grayish-colored, weathered wood particles from dead trees and fences. They chew it up and add a waterproof glue from their saliva.Photo of a hornets nest

The nest is small at first and the new queen lays just a few eggs. When they hatch and develop, these will become the first workers. They start bringing in more paper pulp and enlarging the nest. The queen keeps laying more eggs and the colony keeps growing until it is as big (or bigger) than a basketball and can house a few hundred hornets. Stay away from those nests in summer and fall; hornets are very defensive of their home–they have powerful stings and no sense of humor!

After we put the nest up in the porch rafters, we noticed pieces of the nest paper on the floor underneath it. Something had torn a large hole in the side of the nest. There was also a neat little pile of bird droppings underneath the nest. In the evening, about twilight, we noticed there was wren activity around the nest. We realized that it was the wren that had torn the hole in the side of the nest and it was roosting in there. This has occurred every year for more than a decade. We realized that the Carolina wren is the only eastern North American wren that does not migrate. The northern range of the Carolina wren is determined by the severity of the winter. At the northern edge of its range a severe winter can decimate local wren populations.

A Carolina wren nesting in a hornets nest during winter
Sleeping wren nestled in a hornet’s nest on a cold winter night

Wrens that can find a hornets’ nest (especially one in a sheltered, dry location) have a winter survival advantage. Those many layers of hornet-made paper with dead air space in between provide great insulation and an ideal, cozy roosting site protected from the frigid winter winds. (photo caption: Sleeping wren nestled in a hornet’s nest on a cold winter night)

Todd Elliott did a search of the ornithological literature and found this phenomenon was reported almost 100 years ago. We published our findings in The Chat which is the official publication of the Carolina Bird Club. You can read the article here.

Many thanks to Todd Elliott for the photos, and to Emily Lutken for the illustration of the wren and the hornets’ nest.

For more literature, lore, stories, and songs celebrating the natural world check out my website here.

My 2020 calendar of performances, classes, and other events is coming together and can be seen here.

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Tropical Perennials as Temperate Annuals

When I wrote a book about roots 40-some years ago I never dreamed that I would be living with a woman who would fill our house with them!

All summer when people asked Yanna how her garden was producing she would say, “I don’t know; most of the produce is in the ground.” Nevertheless, we marveled at the above ground parts of the garden which were looking beautifully exotic with huge leaves and foot-long blossoms of the taro, fragrant imbricated turmeric flowers, yam vines leaping out of the garden and climbing high into the trees. We wondered what this strange collection of vegetation was producing underground.

The theme around here has been, ”tropical perennials as temperate annuals”.

After all those years of growing sweet potatoes. It dawned on her that sweet potatoes are a tropical vegetable. In the tropics if you want to plant a sweet potato all you do is clip a piece of the vine and stick it in the ground.  Here in temperate regions we dig the sweet potatoes in the Fall, put them to sleep for a couple of months, then warm them up in early Spring, and they produce shoots (called slips). When the soil warms up we stick the slips in the ground and that’s how we grow sweet potatoes.

Well, what about other tropical roots? After talking with Hmong gardeners (folks from Southeast Asia) we realized that we could really stretch the growing season and adapt other tropical vegetables to grow in our climate, especially those with edible underground parts (roots, rhizomes, corms, bulbs, and tubers)

There’s been a lot of unearthing around here this Fall, and what an amazing array of tropical vegetables have come out of the ground.

Here’s a display of samples from the harvest.

Clockwise from top root cluster with green stem: Taro Colocasia esculenta (2 types), Arrowroot Maranta arundinacea, Malanga  Xanthosoma sagittifolium, Yellow yam Dioscorea alata, Purple ube yam Dioscorea alata, Jicama Pachyrhizus erosus, Yuca/cassava Manihot esculenta, Groundnut Apios Americana, Ginger Zingiber officinale, Yacon Smallanthus sonchifolius, Achira Canna edulis, Center:Water chestnut Eleocharis dulcis, Turmeric Curcuma longa (3 types) 

We look forward to a winter of radical, rhizomatous, cormal, tuberous, and bulbiferous culinary adventures. Come on over and chew a root with us!

That Roots book mentioned earlier was revised, given a new cover, and re- issued by Healing Arts Press as Wild Roots in 1995. It is still in print today more than 40 years after it was first released. It is considered an “underground” classic and it is available along with other books and award winning recordings of stories, songs and lore, here.

My 2020 calendar of performances, classes, and other events is coming together and can be seen here.

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Australian Adventure

We spent the holidays in the land of bouncing kangaroos, screaming cockatoos, crimson parrots and eucalyptus trees (600+ species of eucs)! Our son Todd and his wife Kelsey were wonderful tour guides, treating us like royalty. Todd’s in grad school studying dispersal of fungi by vertebrates. We met various friends and mentors and checked out various national parks in temperate areas of New South Wales (called the New England high country)—even some rainforests.

Folks in Australia drive on the left side of the road, and many are hesitant about driving after dark because of the risk of a kangaroo bouncing through your windshield. Many cars have rugged metal bumpers called “roo guards.” Towns have very few stop signs—at crossroads they generally have a triangular yield sign that says “give way,” meaning you don’t have the right of way but you don’t have to come to a full stop. (I think about all the traffic tickets I wouldn’t have had to pay.)

It does seem strange to have Christmas around the summer solstice. Todd was pointing out a June bug to one of his friends and they replied, “That’s not a June bug; that’s a Christmas beetle!” They speak English, but there are a lot of terms that are different. Elevators are called “lifts”. Chickens are called “chooks.” In the city, ibises are called “bin-chooks” because they’re often seen rummaging around in trash bins. (Maybe they would be a good totem animal for dumpster divers!) Hiking is called “bush- walking.” Trails are “tracks.” Crawfish are called “yabbies.” Pickup trucks are called “utes.” Pastures are “paddocks.” Our favorite expression so far: Someone was talking about a rare animal; she said, “They are rarer than rocking horse shit.”

My favorite critter so far has been the foot long, half pound+ lizard called the blue tongue skink. It’s thick- bodied and rather sluggish and defends itself by opening its large mouth and sticking out its blue tongue and waving it at you.

I’m dreaming of a surreal Christmas…
We became aware of another interesting critter when Yanna noticed a big, oozing bloodstain on her pants leg. She had just had a visitation by a terrestrial leech. When a leech bites, it injects an anti-coagulant so the tiny wound keeps bleeding. The leeches are almost 2 inches long when stretched out. In one forest we explored, if you stopped for a little while you could see the leeches humping along toward you like a horde of thin, slimy inchworms. One of our friends saw one on my arm. She just rolled it up and flicked it away, “like a ball of snot,” she said. Any way you look at it, leeches really suck!

I’m dreaming of a surreal Christmas…

At least the parrots are red
and green!

The carpet python is the most dramatic snake we’ve seen. There were several of them hanging around one of the places we visited for a New Year’s gathering. One of them was 7 feet long, and it created quite a scene when it was discovered hanging out in the outhouse. It’s non-venomous and was delightfully easy to handle. Australia has a lot of snakes and many of them are venomous. We’ve seen a red- bellied black snake and a tiger snake—both venomous. We didn’t mess with them!

We’ve seen a couple of bowers made by bowerbirds. When mating season approaches, the male bird builds a “bower” (a runway/platform with two sides made of vertical grasses and thin twigs). Then he collects various objects to decorate his bower. When he gets his decorations in order and attracts the attention of the female, he does a little dance and shows off his treasures.

In the case of the satin bowerbird, he really prefers blue objects—one of the bowers we saw had blue flowers, blue parrot feathers, bottle caps, and lots of blue plastic clothespins. Todd had been watching this particular bower for several years. When he first saw it in 2010, the bower was just beginning to be constructed and all that was there was a blue sheep ear tag and a few blue-colored blewit mushrooms. That was when he realized that even birds collecting ornamentation for their bowers can in fact affect the distribution of mushrooms. He wrote a scientific paper about this and it got published in the journal, Australasian Zoologist. ( Look for it at your favorite news stand 🙂

Shortly after midnight on New Years Eve, a brushtail possum came to visit. What a nice way to start the new year!

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Red Hot Horny Heads


A small school of yellowfin shiners with their horny head host–Todd Elliott photo

A swarm of bright red fish! That’s what I was seeing in this clear piedmont creek one sunny April afternoon. (I know I should call them a school since they were fish, but these were so tightly congregated–thirty-some, two-inch fish swimming madly in a cluster about a foot in diameter–they seemed more like a swarm.) They had yellow heads and fins,but their bodies were a brilliant red. These were male yellowfin shiners in a mating aggregation. Rather than a swarm or a school, this aggregation might properly be called a “lek”. A lek is a biological term for an assemblage of males congregating to attract females for mating. (The closest human equivalent we might have is a fraternity party or dudes on the street corner.)

These beautiful fish were hovering over a neat pile of small (1-inch) rocks. The rock pile was about a foot in diameter at the tail end of the pool.

I sat down on the creek bank and watched with binoculars, and before long, as they got used to my presence, I began to see different fish in the pool. There were several species engaged in a constant flurry of activity–chasing, feeding, and courtship. It seemed like there were fish with at least four different color patterns present. It was hard to know how many species because in some species of fish, including these yellowfin shiners, males and females have different patterns. The male yellowfins are bright red for only a few weeks during the spawning season.

Then two slightly larger (4 inch) fish moved into the center of the aggregation of yellow fins. At first I thought they might be feeding on the eggs that had been deposited by the yellowfins until I saw one of the fish swim to the edge of the rock pile, pick up a stone in its mouth, carry it to the center of the pile, and drop it. A four-inch fish carrying a rock that was practically an inch in diameter! It seemed like only one of the pair was the rock carrier. (It’s a guy thing.) I saw it transport at least a dozen rocks. This fish was tan-colored with a blue-grayish head with lumps on it. This was most likely a bluehead chub, one of the creek chubs locally known as “knotty-heads” or “horny-heads.” In spring the males develop these “nuptial tubercles” on the head. I had thought that these hardened growths were used to root or move stones around in the stream bed to create these stone nests. But my observations showed me that they simply pick the stones up with their mouths. Apparently, the male’s nuptial tubercles are used in courtship and mating. (The better to nuzzle you with, my dear!) So horny-heads is a perfect name for them. So once again we learn the appropriateness and wisdom of folk names. Nuptial tubercles–what a concept! I might be able to use a few of them sometime myself…

My later reading indicates that as many as 30 species of fish use these rock piles constructed by the chubs for laying their eggs. Apparently, this pile of similar sized rocks offers good aerated water circulation for the developing eggs as well as protection from silt and predators. A large male chub may carry over 7,000 stones, each as large as his head, as far as 25 yards to his nest site.It’s interesting to think of the lowly chub as an “ecosystem engineer” or a “keystone” species with a number of other species depending on the chubs to create optimal breeding sites. There are several species of chubs in different parts of the country that build these nests. So, keep your eyes on the creeks this spring. You might find yourself engaged in some very fishy, sexy, aggregations!

For more information: Brandon Peoples and William Roston have excellent videos of the activity around a bluehead chub’s nest. Check out their site Within Our Waters!