A View from the Hill: Need a distraction? Look to the sky

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In this column, I’m not even going to mention, you know, it. We’ll see how that goes.

My column is called “A View from the Hill” because I am lucky enough to live on Munjoy Hill, where I have a view to the west. I have had a lot of time to study that view lately as I contemplate, well, stuff, thanks to, well, you know.

A couple of days ago I heard a familiar song and looked out and saw that the blazing red cardinal had returned to his customary perch on the still-bare chestnut tree. Then I heard another one. Then the female arrived. What a treat! Talk about love in the time of cholera (oops, that was close).

Maybe a week ago, which is ancient history these days thanks to, well, you know, I watched a “V” of Canada geese zoom in low and fast over Interstate 295 from the south, bound for Canada, or maybe some golf course.

And of course, I’ve seen the usual gulls and crows going about their business, whatever that is. 

The gulls seem to go east in the morning and west in the late afternoon. The crows are more erratic, and I’ve noticed they have to work much harder than the gulls to stay airborne. Or maybe they’re just in a hurry, but they don’t seem faster.

Wait. I take that back. 

Researchers at Stanford University say gulls cruise at about 22 mph and can’t fly any faster than 28 mph, even when they’re after a French fry. Crows, according to the eBestiary blog at Evergreen University, cruise between 30 and 60 mph and can hit 70 in a dive.

Canada geese, by the way, cruise at 40 but can hit 70 in a pinch.

But I was right about how crows make sharp turns for no apparent reason and seem to dive randomly, making a mockery of the phrase “as the crow flies.” If that were true, we’d never get anywhere.

Seeing these harbingers of spring outside my window really cheers me up at a time like, you know, this. But I also need to get outside, especially on nice days. I now avoid the path around Back Cove because it is hard to maintain the personal space we’re supposed to because of, you know, and runners who come from behind and thoughtlessly brush by me inches away, panting heavily, are annoying.

Luckily, there is the wonderful Eastern Prom Trail. Even when lots of people are out, it’s easy to avoid close encounters on the wide trail. The other day I was delighted to see that my favorite birds of all, the wonderfully crazy and joyful and ever-optimistic northern mockingbirds, were back at it along the trail. 

Actually, I heard them before I saw them. I can listen to these skinny, gray birds endlessly as they blather on about nothing and everything from their perches on low branches or light posts. Good self-distancers, they’ll happily serenade you from 6 feet away without hurrying off. When I’m working in the garden in summer, a mockingbird will inevitably land on the fence and burst into song.

No two mockingbirds sound the same. According to The Cornell Lab Bird Academy, each bird can belt out 10 to 15 songs. Over time, they teach themselves new songs by listening to other birds. Over a lifetime, according to the academy, a male may learn as many as 200 songs. Incredible.

And they have two repertoires, one for spring and one for fall. Most mockingbirds stick around for winter, but they don’t feel like singing when it’s cold. The rest of the year, the males will sing constantly from dawn well into the night

And not just songs. They’ve been known to mimic sirens, cell phone rings and many other sounds.

While the males do most of the singing, females will chime in during the fall.

These birds are a wonder, and they are a wonderful distraction from whatever might be, you know, on your mind at this particular point in history.

All this talk of singing brought some John Lennon lyrics to mind.

“Nobody told me there’d be days like these/ Strange days indeed.”

I wonder if our mockingbird friends could master that one.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.

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