When I was a toddler, my mother had to appeal to the birds to get me dressed. In an effort to make me stick a contrary arm through the sleeve of my undershirt, she would sing out, “Listen to the bird! It’s saying “Shirt-y on-y, Shirt-y on-y!” I listened, my contrariness arrested. That was just what it said, in a wren’s liquid melody. I got my shirt on.
When my own daughter was little, it seemed the birds were talking to her, too. She came running into our bedroom one morning to say, “A little bird telled me ‘Ge’ up! Ge’ up!’”
Birds have a lot to say. There is the first sleepy birdsong that cheers an insomniac–the robin’s slightly off-tune prattle serving as a reassurance that the night will finally end. An owl’s call resonating through the dark often speaks to me of family and the deep feelings that go with family.
We often take what we imagine from a bird call, whether it is the mournful coo of a dove just before a rain or the high cry of a raptor in the blue sky; a chicadee’s sass or a white-throated sparrow’s lullaby.
But sometimes what the birds have to say is all about them, not us.
I was at the computer in my attic studio one day, when there arose a great clamor of bird shrieks and cries. I shot out of my chair and down two flights of stairs. “Snake!” I thought as I ran out to the crape myrtle tree where they had flocked. Sure enough, a six-foot blacksnake draped and looped and then dropped to the ground, slithering away from all the fuss.
(Only later I freaked myself out wondering how I had known it was a snake, even before I saw it. I’m understanding birds?)
Recently I was sitting at the computer when the birds began to clamor once again. I jumped up and ran out the front door. If they were yelling “Snake!” this time, it must be the hugest most menacing one ever—a Burmese python or an anaconda. Blue jays, mockingbirds, grackles, and robins were screeching and flying around our little woods, the wildlife refuge flaunted as such by a plaque from the National Wildlife Federation. Their refuge had been broached by an enemy; that was evident.
“What’s wrong, birds?” I found myself calling out. (It seemed natural at the time, but a little embarrassing when I told the story later, to be asking a flock of agitated birds anything.)
I was stunned when, as if in answer, a gorgeous red fox ran out of the woods and across the lawn right in front of me, her fluffy tail waving with a stylish flourish. I say her because I think only a mother fox would be out and about at noon on a sunny day, foraging for her kits. She trotted across the yard and out of sight. The birds quieted down.
I have lived in this house, in this yard and garden, for the last forty years, minus a few years of living abroad. But this was the first sight I ever had of a red fox sharing my space. And I had the birds to thank for the alert.
A neighbor once told us years ago that sometimes he saw a fox at the edge of our little woods in the early morning. I pictured the animal with a pipe and vest, sitting on a stump with his newspaper just as Beatrix Potter had painted him long ago, scheming against Jemima Puddleduck and her nest of eggs.
I could only imagine it, never having seen the fox for myself.
Until now. A miracle in the garden.
Susan Yoder Ackerman is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of over 200 stories and articles for children and adults. Look for her newest story to come out in Cricket Magazine’s September 2013 edition. Among her books are Copper Moons, featuring adventures in a new marriage on the African continent, and The Flying Pie and Other Stories, featuring true stories told in the local Mennonite community, of which Lisa’s flower farm is the geographical center. Susan also works on The Gardener’s Workshop farm. You can email Susan at [email protected].